Tracy Morgan plays the titular relic in The Last O.G., an ex-con named Tray Barker who’s returning to Brooklyn after serving 15 years in prison, intent on reuniting with his girlfriend Shay (Tiffany Haddish) and starting a career as a chef. When Tray was arrested in a drug-dealing sting, the world was glued to Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarani’s American Idol face-off; when he steps off the bus in his old stomping grounds, he finds sidewalks choked with selfie-taking tourists and seaweed scarfing infants. The Last O.G. is a second-chances narrative through and through, a theme particularly relevant to the headlining talent, the Emmy-nominated 30 Rock star and Saturday Night Live alum who’s making his return to series TV following the highway accident that killed James “Jimmy Mack” McNair and put Morgan in a coma for two weeks.
The Last O.G. itself is living its second chance, and it couldn’t be more fortuitously timed. Originally greenlit by FX, the show bounced over to TBS, where it was scheduled to debut in the fall of 2017. That got bumped to this spring, and showrunning duties changed hands from co-creator Joe Carcieri to Saladin K. Patterson during the post-production process. Meanwhile, the show’s other co-creator, Jordan Peele, won an Oscar, and a breakout performance in Girls Trip made The Last O.G.’s female lead, Tiffany Haddish, one of the biggest names in comedy. At the time of its premiere, the face on the show’s posters is the third-hottest name on its IMDB page.
All of which is to say The Last O.G. you see tonight isn’t necessarily The Last O.G. you’ll see next week, in a few weeks, or in a hypothetical second season. That’s not a bad thing: The handful of insipid prison-rape jokes that crop up in the premiere do not set a trend for what follows. (TBS sent out the first six episodes of the show; I’ve seen four.) And though Morgan is a little shaky in Tray’s initial confrontation with halfway-home supervisor Mullins (Cedric The Entertainer), he finds his on-camera sea legs soon enough. As Tray tries to get a read on his gentrified surroundings, the episode hunts and pecks for a tone. It lands on a match for its star’s typically broad stylings, and most of the jokes that work are of similarly big-and-loud sort: The various specimen of hipster Tray encounters upon his return to the neighborhood, the picture frame that falls shortly after Mullins’ famous last words “This well-oiled facility, I oversee all of this,” or the act-break fainting spell when Tray discovers that little Bobby from the cold-open/nightmare flashback grew up to be the spitting image of his old man.
It’s Tray’s story, but the secondary characters provide just as much reason to stick with The Last O.G. Mullins treats the men under his care as a captive audience for his burgeoning comedy career; as, Josh, the white guy Shay married while Tray was incarcerated, Ryan Gaul continues to hone the type of affable, romantic-obstacle-you-just-can’t-hate he previously played on Superstore. And then there’s Haddish, who doesn’t have much screen time in the premiere, but makes what is there count. She’s formidable in the episode’s charity-gala climax, raising her fists to Tray one second then smilingly humoring elderly donors who call Shay “So articulate!” the next. Haddish and Morgan have a volatile chemistry, and their last scene together tonight pulls their characters’ relationship out of the rosy light Tray has cast it in over all these years—particularly when it’s revealed that Shay is the mother to 15-year-old twins.
It’s punctuated by an exclamation from Trey—“Scientifically speaking, how did you and a caucasian man make two kids whose last name could be Wesley and Snipes?”—but that moment hints at the somber streak that runs through ensuing episodes of The Last O.G. Tray isn’t the only person who saw his arrest as a need to start over, and what Shay lost and what she left behind on that night in 2002 tints much of Haddish’s performance. Tray feeling like a stranger on his own home turf contributes both joke fodder and emotional ballast; when Bobby introduces him to dating apps, it produces an episode that’s both tender in its portrayal of Tray’s first date in 15 years and heartfelt in its homage to the classic cinema he’s always quoting and referencing. (Mullins’ own disastrous night on the town provides the comedic contrast.) In its premiere, The Last O.G. drafts off of its star’s big, broad comic persona. But the show is also telling a relatively grounded version of a story that, if it’s ever seen on TV, is more typically the subject operatic and/or searing drama. To put it in a slightly tortured analogy: The Last O.G. is to the first season of Empire, Cutty’s arc on The Wire, and Rectify what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is to The Path. And though some of the other big names associated with the show threaten to overshadow him, The Last O.G. is a show that belongs to Tracy Morgan.
- We got a little squeezed for time over here at the ol’ The A.V. Club—maybe you’ve heard, but there’s a lot of TV out there nowadays—so apologies for the premiere recap/season overview hybrid. On the one hand, I really wanted to communicate what a low-key delight The Last O.G. can be, and on the other, I wanted to be able comment on the pilot’s biggest laughs without giving them away.
- Josh has a real sweet gig: “He writes voiceovers for Anthony Bourdain.”