Why 'Glee' Is so Integral to 'The Girl from Plainville'

There are more than a few scenes inspired by 'Glee' in the Hulu series based on the Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy case.

glee scene the girl from plainville
Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan | Steve Dietl/Hulu
Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan | Steve Dietl/Hulu

In the first episode of Hulu's The Girl from Plainville, we're introduced to Michelle Carter, the grieving girlfriend, the manipulative attention-seeker, and… Gleek. At the end of the first episode, "Star-Crossed Lovers and Things Like That," the teenager played by Elle Fanning recites a speech in the mirror that sounds like something she plans to give at a memorial service for her boyfriend Conrad "Coco" Roy (Colton Ryan), who just died by suicide. It seems a little off that she would practice something of that nature so soon, but we then realize that's not what she's doing at all. When she turns around and presses play on her laptop, we see that she's actually reenacting an episode of Glee—one that aired shortly after Finn actor Cory Monteith died and featured his real-life and on-screen girlfriend Lea Michele paying tribute to him as her character Rachel Berry.

It's the first of many Glee references in the Hulu limited series co-created by Liz Hannah (The Dropout, Mindhunter) and Patrick Macmanus (Dr. Death, Homecoming) about the infamous "texting-suicide" case, in which then-17-year-old Michelle Carter was charged with involuntary manslaughter for urging her boyfriend to kill himself over text just before he died in 2014. In Episode 4, the series brings to life one of Carter's Glee-inspired fantasies. In the middle of her neighborhood street, she imagines that she's Rachel Berry and Conrad's Finn—preppy ensembles and all—and the two duet the classic Glee cover of "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. Although the moment may at first feel like it takes you out of the complicated true-crime series, it actually does something rather fascinating: It helps you to see into Carter's psyche, which is clearly heavily influenced by YA romance and stories of young outcasts "saving" one another.

Elle Fanning as michelle carter, michelle carter as rachel berry
Elle Fanning | Steve Dietl/Hulu

The team behind The Girl from Plainville always intended to integrate references to Glee and other mid-2010s YA media into the series. It was meant to show not only how much it inflated her idea of her relationship with Roy, but ends up being an effective way to humanize her by illustrating what was perhaps going through her head on her end of the text chain. Showrunner Patrick Macmanus says, "At the very beginning when [co-creator] Liz Hannah and I were piecing this show together, before we'd even hired the writer's room, we had said to [Universal] and Hulu that they had to prepare themselves because we're gonna need Glee—that there was no world in which we could tell this story without having access to that." That proved to be no issue, and they were able to integrate clips and sequences, like the one in Episode 4, that were discussed since the show's early development.

The inclusion of Glee was always a part of The Girl from Plainville because of how much it's a part of Carter and Roy's extremely documented relationship, or in their thousands of text messages that the series' team used as a resource. "When you do a cursory read of the text messages, you can begin to see where she's stealing lines of dialogue wholesale from Glee or The Fault in Our Stars and making them her own," says Macmanus. "Something that Liz [Hannah] says often, and she's right, is that those text messages are less texts and more like a living diary. We got an insight into this young woman's heart, her soul, her mind to figure out who she was—who she was with her friends, who she was with her family, and, obviously, who she was with Conrad. Some of those things may have been a facade, but the vast majority felt very honest to us."

Macmanus explains that seeing how teen dramas influenced Carter's texts, and therefore her thinking and vision of who she could be to Roy, it became clear that it was "just built into her and her life." That's why it was so important to include in the show from day one—but done so in a way that intentionally distincted what was real and not, hence the jarring musical Glee interlude. With that in mind, the showrunner notes that one of the series' only touchstones, other than the real case files and footage, was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, given its emphasis on the "fracture of reality and fantasy."

Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan in the girl from plainville
Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan | Steve Dietl/Hulu

For viewers, the Glee-inspired scenes are some of the most striking to watch—because of the sheer 2014 of it all, the fact that Glee has become such a questionable pop culture monolith since then, and because of how much character it adds to such a complex, somber series. For the cast and crew, they were also somewhat of a marvel to put together. Macmanus says, after filming the first three tough episodes, the scene in Episode 4 "injected a new life" into the show's production because of how fun the shoot was. "[Fanning and Ryan] had a blast. It was like a palate cleanser at the midpoint of our show."

He also calls the scene in the premiere "a masterclass" from Fanning, too. He explains the star had a notebook where she wrote down every gesture Lea Michele made during the Glee scene and hit it to perfection—down to the syllables—in what ended up being a six-and-a-half hour shoot of the single moment. He says, "I've been doing this for a long time and I've been around some really brilliant actors, but I've never seen someone just disappear the way she disappeared."

Although the inclusion of things like Glee and John Green in The Girl from Plainville feels a bit like teen pop cultural whiplash when they're introduced in the Hulu drama, they end up being an important part of the series and give it a special kind of grounding that not all ripped-from-the-headlines TV shows have. While a lot of media coverage surrounding the case didn't aim to or have the capacity to look beyond the most damning messages Carter sent to try to understand her perspective, the series attempts to with sensitivity. It tries to make sense of how all of the stories Carter consumed about lonely, mentally ill, and physically sick teenagers in love could convince her that she might have her own tragic love story with someone she serendipitously met once on vacation. Macmanus says that in going through all of the messages and information about Carter that they had at their disposal, you can't help but "come away from it with this concept that Michelle was living at least part of her life in a fantasy."

"She was absolutely latched into the YA world of her own life," he says. "We are constantly building little fantasies in our lives—every single person does that. So the idea that Michelle did that, that doesn't make her special—that makes her human—which was important to us [in making this show]."

Reporting by Kerensa Cadenas.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter and Instagram.
Kerensa Cadenas is the entertainment director at Thrillist.