Lost. The West Wing. We were treated to 13 seasons of great television between The West Wing’s debut in 1999 and Lost’s finale in 2010. Two shows with fabulous brilliance that can’t be truly compared, but can’t be separated either.
The West Wing was an artful show. The dialogue with perfect timing and delivery gave it a rhythmic feel as if the characters were dancing their lines instead of speaking them. A lesser show could tip easily into ridicule. But The West Wing was so brilliant we accepted it, it actually made the show better.
Its art played into our romantic notions of what the White House might be like; what a president might be like if he eschewed the fears that hem in our real life leaders. Jed Bartlet led from his heart in the way we hope all presidents do.
These two things are what reached out from the rest of the show to bind it to viewers. There will always be movies and television shows set to the White House, but never one so endearing.
The West Wing had a clear lead character in Jed Bartlet, which is what you would expect from a show about the presidency. Every other character’s actions were influenced by their proximity to him whether they intended them to or not. People in politics like to joke about how it is really nothing like The West Wing made it out to be, but in this one regard I think it did it right. You can’t escape from under the way working in politics will frame your life.
They couldn’t escape it because of where the show put them: The White House. They did White House things and we saw how their personalities influenced their handling of those things and their decisions. The decision-making process is what revealed the characters. There is the source of drama — how are those decisions made? How does making them affect the people who do? How do their unique experiences influence their contributions? That was West Wing.
Lost was raw, a plane crash cutting a vein in its character’s lives that they had no choice but to stem. This was its White House. How they reacted, interacted and then reacted to their interactions. Who are these people? What life stories do they bring to this island? How will those stories affect the choices they make on this island? Their character was revealed through these interactions.
There was no balance or art to the dialogue between characters. It was drawn from within the characters in a way that The West Wing’s really wasn’t. You could take a lot of scenes from West Wing, shift the lines among characters and come out with the same scene, the same story and the characters would not be terribly disrupted. You could not switch Sawyer’s lines with John Locke’s. Sawyer didn’t seek destiny. He mocked destiny, denied it outright. Lost’s dialogue came from some place much deeper than The West Wing’s.
We knew West Wing was going to be a show about the presidency and the people supporting it. Lost took our assumptions that it would be a show about escaping a deserted island and threw ’em away. It was not about that at all.
Lost was about characters. Deep, complex characters. Characters that change as they take a journey. None of them ended the show the same as they began it. They traveled toward something. Each had to come to a realization or find redemption, and they all did. No major character died or left the island without doing so.
There was no dominant Jed Bartlet. Different characters rose and fell to drive the story from episode to episode. Using that structure allowed the writers to build each character such a deep background. If you try to think about Lost written in the format The West Wing was, you can’t see a way that it works. Lost needed four separate timelines to hold up its story. It becomes a pretty remarkable body of work when you think about it that way.
There was no natural ending like what The West Wing ran into, not once Lost established that it was not a show about leaving an island. The drama came from what the characters did in this trying situation and the journey they took within it. The journey happened without the characters even realizing it as they faced one situation after another. Isn’t that what life is? We navigate thru the things that occupy our days and only when the journey is over do we have the wisdom to look back at where we were and know the end is where we belong. That is Lost. That is life. “This is the place you made together.”
It’s no secret which show I like better but this isn’t about deciding between two shows. On the surface you would never think a show about politics and a show about castaways would be at all similar. Each’s greatness can be found there at the intersection of similar and different.