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.
Consider too that Finn is both a point-of-entry character and an object of desire, and what that means when he defies the Everyman archetype. Audiences saw Finn embracing various queer and outcast figures, and that made him important to an entire generation of young viewers all across Glee's international fandom (Tumblr seems to have been invented solely for Gleeks and the couples they "ship"). It sent a powerful it-gets-better message to LGBT kids and a message of inclusiveness to all the other kids. Finn also constantly reminded Rachel that she was destined for Broadway stardom while he feared he'd never escape Ohio--the Everyman saw himself as a loser and the outcast as a winner. Finally, the image of Finn serenading Kurt with "Just the Way You Are," turning its hetero-romance undertones into a gay-acceptance anthem, is the most uplifting thing I've ever seen a straight character do for a gay character on TV.
By Season Three, the outcasts had taken over the show while Finn's role was reduced. The others were embarking on bright post-graduation futures, while Finn didn't get into college and didn't know what to do with his life. His worst nightmare and prophecy had come true: He was stuck in Ohio. The world had opened up for everyone but the Everyman, and Finn's repeated insistence that he "didn't have a place in this world" is not something we expect a good-looking quarterback to express. His unemployment and dismal prospects turned him into an outcast while representing the despair of many young people after the 2008 financial crash. Fittingly, he returned to the choir room (the outcasts' refuge) to take Will Schuster's place as leader of the glee club. The series began with Will already in the third act of his life, but since we went on a full journey with Finn, his failures were more poignant. When Finn sang "Don't Dream It's Over" with his up-and-coming glee kids, it had all the small-town aspirations of "Don't Stop Believing" but it was also tinged with melancholy because viewers knew it was a dream he'd already lost.
Cory Monteith nailed all those performances of confusion, alienation, and self-pity. He skillfully took the role from Everyman egalitarianism to Everyman anomie without betraying the character's integrity. It's hard to look back without wondering how much of his troubled experiences went into those scenes. When he spoke candidly in interviews about growing up and "not fitting in" and "not having a strong self-image," it seemed clear how he could play a character who understands outcasts and a character who becomes one. That he looked the part of an All-American jock was undercut by the surprising reality that he was a Canadian high-school dropout who struggled through homelessness and addiction. It was always a performance, then--he was never actually quite an Everyman, and that's why so many people could relate.