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By Maria Elena Fernandez
Someone on "Glee" might need to sing "Jesus Take the Wheel" soon.
The Fox musical comedy and national phenomenon is days from starting production on its third season, but behind the scenes there's already been plenty of drama. While the "Glee" cast spent some of the summer touring 18 U.S cities, the U.K, and Ireland, their bosses have been issuing conflicting reports to the press about the status of their roles on the show and fighting with each other over those accounts.
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None of the off-camera angst may matter in the end to the 10 million people who tune in every week to watch their favorite characters sing, dance, and get into all kinds of teenage trouble. But it does call into question whether the TV show that gave a much-needed boost to the music industry is showing some signs of internal trouble at a critical time in its life span.
"Glee" grew into a bona fide hit in its first season, quickly becoming a cultural darling as well as an award-winning critical success. In 2010, the series was the No. 1 TV franchise on DVD and, so far, has sold over 10.5 million albums and 33.6 million downloads worldwide. But it ended its sophomore year on a down note with a dip in the ratings, after a very strong start in the fall, and some critical and fan backlash over its creatively uneven season.
Realizing that its viewers want more character-driven stories and that the show has been more focused on the music, Glee branched out this summer and hired six writers to help co-creators and executive producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, who had written all of the episodes in the first two seasons. The new scribes include Allison Adler ("Chuck") as a co-executive producer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa ("Big Love"), as a co-producer, and Marti Noxon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Mad Men") and MadTV writer and actor Michael Hitchcock as consulting producers. In an interview in June, Murphy said Glee will scale back musically this season, doing only four numbers per episode instead of six, and not producing any musical tributes to have more time to develop the characters.
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But on July 13, Murphy set off an Internet and internal frenzy when he told The Hollywood Reporter that not only will the show's three lead characters graduate this year, but the actors who play them—Lea Michele, Cory Monteith and Chris Colfer—will be leaving the show. Set in an Ohio high school, Glee follows the lives of more than a dozen students who turn to show choir as a way of fitting in and expressing themselves. At the end of the second season, Rachel (Michele) and Finn (Monteith) discussed their graduation “a whole year away.”
Murphy's announcement about the actors took everyone by surprise—including his bosses at Fox and 20th Century Fox TV, his fellow writers, and the actors, who were on hiatus. Although internally there had been conversations about which characters might graduate and the possibility of a spin-off for some of them, no one expected Murphy to make announcement in the press about a fourth season that has not yet been ordered by the network. Additionally, Murphy said in the interview that he had spoken to Michele and Colfer about his plans, but the 21-year-old Golden Globe winner disputed that claim the next day while doing interviews after his second Emmy nomination.
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"I didn't necessarily know that it was going to be our last season next year," Colfer said. "I knew something like that was coming up eventually. I mean, we can't be there forever.” A source close to Colfer told The Daily Beast this week that the actor was initially “shocked” to learn the news on Twitter, but he received a phone call from Fox that morning that reassured him.
"I know that Ryan's used scare tactics in the past to keep the actors in line and when this came out, I wondered if this might be a scare tactic to scare them into thinking if we're going to let them go, we might get them to re-negotiate for less,” the source said. “When you have a show that goes from being 'let's see what happens' to being a national phenomenon, you know that if you're going to keep those actors, you're going to have to pay them what they're worth. They may have been nobodies when they started that show, but they're certainly not nobodies now. And they work harder than any cast out there and are the least paid at what they do. They've become cash cows for Fox."
In the Hollywood Reporter interview, Murphy said he had not spoken to Monteith about his plans "but I presume he knows". Two sources connected to "Glee" told The Daily Beast that Murphy's relationship with Monteith has inexplicably soured.
"As far as anyone can tell Cory's always been very, very affable and a team player," said a source close to the show. "We're not sure what created the tension…20th wasn't particularly happy in the aftermath of what Ryan said in that interview. It was a point of contention internally. Everyone here was pretty much caught off-guard."
Monteith's publicist said the actor is on vacation and unavailable, but she refuted the idea that Monteith is being mistreated. "Cory has wonderful relationships with the entire 'Glee' team."
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Murphy declined to be interviewed for this article. 20th Century Fox TV Chairman Dana Walden told The Daily Beast that she wasn't upset with Murphy over his statements in the interview, but she did discuss it with him. In that conversation, Walden, who heads the studio that produces Glee, reminded Murphy that talk of a spin-off when there is no deal and he himself doesn't know if he wants to add another show to his workload is premature. (Murphy and Falchuk have a new drama, American Horror Story, that premieres in October on FX).
"Personally, what I thought in response to the article was that the fan base, because they didn't have specific information about the spin-off, they were going to be concerned about losing characters they love,” Walden said. "It wasn't his intention to say they were going away from the Glee franchise. I have many conversations with Ryan…If he wanted to get rid of a major character, we would not be surprised by reading about it. If you can imagine a moment in your life where you either misspeak or say too much and the repercussions are that thousands of people instantly respond full of emotion, and then the actors respond in their own way because they don't know what's going on at that moment–that's what it was like.”
Then it got worse.
At a "Glee" panel at Comic-Con in San Diego last weekend to promote the upcoming season as well as the movie, "GLEE LIVE! 3D!" which hits theaters on Aug. 12 for a limited run, Falchuk put his foot in his mouth. When asked about the three fan favorites leaving the show, Falchuk first blamed it on The Hollywood Reporter, saying he had no idea where the writer got her information. Later, he backpedaled and said that just because characters graduate does not mean they will no longer be a part of the series. Falchuk also said that producers were now leaning against a spin-off. Murphy did not attend the event.
"Why Brad suggested it was the reporter, I really can't answer that," Walden said. "But he's very well-meaning. Ryan and Brad did not intend to conflict with each other. When Ryan's excited about something, he talks about it. There are some times when I wish Ryan would keep something to himself and then in a timely manner we can announce something. But he's excited and it's on his mind and it creatively keeps him going to talk about it.
"Sometimes Ryan does intend to make news and he does intend to say things that are controversial and thought he was, I believe, providing The Hollywood Reporter with a piece of information about these characters that would be exciting and maybe mysterious or curious," she said. “He certainly never meant to say these characters are leaving forever. There would be no benefit in that for him, and that's what Brad went to Comic-Con to try to address. He wanted to reassure the fans that it's not their intention to just dispense with characters that viewers have grown attached to and are invested in."
But Falchuk's misstep at Comic-Con drew plenty of criticism from the press, which had already taken Murphy to task for telling The Hollywood Reporter that his stars would be leaving the show—before telling them.
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“This is all a very touchy subject now," the show source said. “It seemed like the idea was to do some fan damage control at Comic-Con but it doesn't seem to have been planned well or discussed ahead of time with Ryan."
Sources said that there has been tension this week between Murphy and Falchuk over these incidents.
Walden downplayed any behind-the-scenes friction, saying Murphy and Falchuk have been longtime partners and friends and they are of one mind when it comes to the creative vision of the show.
"Whether or not Brad handled that exact question at Comic-Con in the exact right way or Ryan handled the interview with The Hollywood Reporter in exactly the right way, probably not," she said. "But none of us under that level of scrutiny and pressure and constant thirst for information, I don't think any of us would be able to conduct the number of interviews and conversations with fans and not at some point create controversy."
Known as one of the most press-friendly producers in TV, Murphy just wants to “put his head down and do the work now,” Walden said.
"I don't think Ryan's trying to hide but I do think he's finding himself in a situation where everything he says has the potential to create so much controversy that I think he just got into the mode, 'Maybe I should just stop talking for a minute.'"
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