There have been some concerns in the comments that I am focusing too much on Michael Scott in these reviews, a point that I understand. For better or for worse, I have certain preferences regarding Michael as a character, and in Carell’s final season it is an almost inevitable focus of critical analysis.
That being said, I want to spend a bit of time to clarify that while I have a preference for certain characterizations for Michael all I really need for an episode to succeed is a dynamic character. An entirely competent Michael is just as problematic as an entirely idiotic Michael, in that both fail to speak to the valuable tension between his two most prominent personalities. I may ultimately want Michael to end up competent, but so long as there are moments of sanity within the storyline I think it can be both meaningful and funny.
“Christening” is an episode wherein Michael Scott is a flawed, yet normal, man. He bristles at not being part of CeCe’s life but ultimately takes his seat once Pam sets him straight; he finds his employees self-centered and turns to the church for a sense of community; he gets on the bus to try to make something of his life but ultimately abandons the bus when panic sets in. Parts of the storyline are things that are very typical of the character—the Godfather voice, the sense of panic—while other parts stretch the character outside of his comfort zone.
What is so compelling (and funny) about Michael is that he is still searching for his identity despite being over 40. “Scott’s Tots” may be excruciating to sit through, but the story makes perfect sense: Michael refused to admit to the school that he couldn’t support them because that would mean admitting that he didn’t achieve his dreams. Michael’s two dreams in life are becoming wealthy (and thus being able to support those children) and to find a community like Lake Wobegon in which to live his life, and here he is, in search of the peace and contentment of the latter dream.
Michael gets on that bus because he believes he still has a purpose in this world, just as Andy or Angela still want to have children (although not with each other, as far as I can tell). Part of what's made Jim and Pam less interesting as of late is that they seem to have achieved their dreams (or altered their dreams to reflect their current place in life): They got married, they had a baby, and they settled comfortably into their lives. And so our attention turns to Darryl, who has big plans at the company, or someone like Andy who always seems to be focused on his future. Michael, for better or for worse and perhaps inconsistently, has always been that kind of character as well, and so while there are some impulsive and silly moments here, they are driven not by some sort of mental deficiency but a desire to make something of his life. It is decidedly human behavior, and that’s all I really ask of the character. I may desire competence, but I don’t expect it, and this dynamism is just as effective.
I thought there were some nice moments in the A-Story, as Jim and Pam fumble their way through the christening, but it ultimately felt fairly inert. I did like that the show stepped away from Michael disrupting the christening and that the entire office showing up ended up being more of a justification to involve all of the characters instead of a comic setpiece ala Phyllis’ wedding, but leaving Jim and Pam largely to their own devices didn’t do much for me. Lost babies, changing accidents, and party-planning mishaps are not exactly inventive comedy, and compared to the character-driven work, it lacked impact. Some good lines, certainly, but nothing to write home about.
However, my favorite storyline in the entire episode occupied perhaps sixty seconds of screentime. Toby’s inability to cross the threshold of the church, his talking heads about his relationship with God, and that absolutely wonderful final scene, as he asks God why he always has to be so mean, were simply sublime. It’s a simple story, but it’s a pure character story: We don’t have the complete context, but seeing this individual relationship between the situation and a character is extremely valuable (and, in Lieberstein’s delivery in the final scene, hilarious and sad simultaneously). It’s also far more interesting than the more one-dimensional character work from Dwight (who spends the entire service selling paper) and Ryan (whose douchiness was unleashed here), but “Christening” achieved a balance of sorts. You had your characters being silly, but you also had Toby’s struggle with his faith, and both provided some solid humor when you put them together.
“Christening” is not an all-time classic, but I like the way the episode avoids falling into familiar tropes for the show: The christening speaks to “Niagara” and “Phyllis’ Wedding” without turning into a similar storyline, and Michael and Andy’s escape from the bus becomes awkward without being too awkward. It ends up being more subtle than you might imagine from the logline and less obnoxious than you would think when Michael first approaches the family bench to do his Godfather shtick. Even the kid getting off the bus with them seems more real than “funny,” Michael and Andy’s speech having awoken his insecurity with the future.
Not the funniest half-hour the show has done, but a nice stop on the road to Michael’s Lake Wobegon (which seems to be the season's destination).
- Fun cold open tonight—there was a big discussion last week that suggested I demand cold opens which connect to the episode (for the record, I don’t demand anything—desire, maybe), but this worked because it had some nice balance to it. We get Dwight’s talking head expressing complete confidence in his support of attacks against his immune system while we see Dwight grimace at the thought of eating his sneezed-on toast. Silly Dwight is here, but we see the cracks in that persona, which we’ve been missing in previous cold opens this season.
- It’s like television comedy knows I’m sick: Modern Family, Cougar Town, and now The Office all have storylines related to colds.
- Plus, just as last week, we were knee deep in Lady Gagas in NBC's comedy block, this week we get Mean Girls references in both Community and The Office.
- My excitement at seeing Zoe Jarman, who was so absolutely wonderful on ABC Family’s (canceled) Huge this summer, knows few bounds. I am really going to miss that show, so seeing her here as head of the Youth Group was both exciting and a bit bittersweet.
- CeCe being baptized in an Arcade Fire t-shirt has made her a hipster for life, and it’s also a continuing example of music’s influence on her life. (See: Simon and Garfunkel connection.)
- Kelly’s putdown last week was nice, but I think I preferred Jim’s decision to stop Michael from insulting Pam’s mother since Michael actually stopped. Victory!
- “Right, and ruin their cloaks? Do you have any idea how expensive wool is in Transylvania? Due to the Euro.”
- “Hope you brought your pipes, we’re about to smoke the opium of the masses.”
- "For all their generosity and spirit, they password protect their wireless?!"
- “Jesus is not your caterer.”
- “It’s Dwight from the vestibule.”
- “I think that was Sconesy Cider, noted baptism reception critic.”
- "There is no off-season for printer sales."
- “Everybody thinks that I am crazy, and that tells me that I am the sanest person I know.”
- “Why do you always gotta be so mean to me?” The best delivery of the season, by far.
- "Do you smell, like, a weird warm cheese?"
- “What kind of person steals scones from a BABY?!”