When we first saw Finn Hudson in the pilot episode of Glee, he was holding Kurt Hummel's jacket so it wouldn't get trashed when a group of jocks tossed the effeminate gay teenager in a dumpster. It was a small moment of comedic kindness--Finn was a good guy trying to act like a man, which at McKinley High meant no-homo. Later in that episode, Finn told his jock friends, "Don't you get it? We're all losers. Everyone in this school, everyone in this town."
At its best, Glee is about small-town losers dreaming about being big-city winners and even when they don't succeed, dreaming on anyway. It's easily the queerest show that's ever been on network TV not just because it features multiple gay characters--and in romantic situations too--but because it's constantly reversing gender norms and placing traditionally marginalized characters front and center. But making that point required a conventional Everyman for scale (like those YouTube videos where a small object is placed next to a whale so you know how big it is). As played by the recently deceased Cory Monteith, Finn Hudson looked the handsome, wholesome part, but when he joined the glee club, he became something more subversive.
As far as romantic leading men on teen shows, Finn didn't have the intelligence of Brandon Walsh (Beverly Hills 90210), the mystery of Jordan Catalano (My So Called Life) or the insouciance of Zack Morris (Saved By the Bell). And in terms of his TV peers, Monteith wasn't a great showman like Neil Patrick Harris or a great character actor like Aaron Paul or even a great beauty like Matt Bomer. What he had was a palpable sweetness that infused his portrayal of Finn. In Monteith's unassuming performance, you believed that a football player would join show choir, befriend a gay kid, and date a theater geek. You believed it because Finn never exuded any of the arrogance or privilege we expected from popular jocks in high-school shows.
Because Monteith wasn't a natural-born singer or dancer, Finn was a vicarious performer for the majority of viewers who can't hit musical notes like Lea Michele or bust a dance move like Harry Shum. Watching back the iconic "Don't Stop Believing," it's clear that Michele outsings him, but Monteith sells the small-town aspiration (his arms and gaze reaching for the stars) and his chemistry with Michele is electric (the two were involved off-screen). In an era of macho antiheroes, Finn countered that being a man didn't have to include physical strength or objectifying women, but could instead be defined by expressiveness, vulnerability, and compassion. He failed as a quarterback, a soldier, and a boyfriend, but he succeeded in glee club, where he sang and danced and hung around with a bunch of queer kids.
Monteith never got a lot of credit for his performance, and that's a shame. He played straight (literally and figuratively) on a show where almost everyone else was colorful and theatrical. It's a thankless role, but Monteith made some interesting choices. He never strutted confidently, instead walking with a slight hunch or hesitation that undermined the solidity of an Everyman, and he generously allowed his costars to have the bigger reactions. In several confrontations like this beautiful scene in "The Breakup" (where Rachel poses the question of what makes a man), he often looked away from his scene partner, which made him seem uncertain and childlike. And whenever Finn had to act like a fratboy, Monteith delivered those lines with comic timing, thereby reassuring us that bro behavior was an affectation. These were conscious acting choices that deconstructed the jock character. In Monteith's portrayal, masculinity was a performance, and a leading man was just a boy pretending to be a man.