It’s true. The Last O.G. may be the best thing Tracy Morgan has ever done.
As Tray Barker, an ex-con who steps back into the real world after 15 years of incarceration, Morgan doesn’t go for the unpredictable shtick he did as Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock (or his various talk-show/morning-show appearances, which usually turn into addictive viral videos). Don’t get it twisted — Morgan still acts like a damn fool in this role. But Morgan, who also serves as an executive producer, uses this opportunity to explore what it’s like when a thug-life brotha has to acclimate to these woke-as-hell times.
In the opening minutes of the pilot (directed by Jorma Taccone of The Lonely Island), Morgan’s cornrowed Barker makes the mistake of leaving his crib — instead of hanging with his girl Shay (Tiffany Haddish) and watching the first-season finale of American Idol (he thought Justin Guarini was a lock to win!) — to sell crack for his boss Wavy (guest star Malik Yoba). Of course, Barker gets busted and sent up the river. Cut to 15 years later: Barker has become a master chef and is looking to educate kids in his old, Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, letting them know that they’ll end up in jail if they don’t go on the straight and narrow. Only problem is Brooklyn isn’t the crime-infested hellhole it once was. It’s gotten gentrified. Sketchy-looking bodegas are now coffee klatches. Thug-looking brothas go to brunch with their white-girl BFFs. As Barker screams at the beginning of one episode, “It’s a madhouse!”
A lazier show might’ve made Barker oblivious to how much Brooklyn has progressed and let him egotistically continue his mission to drop science on the youth. Thankfully (and quite hilariously), Barker picks up immediately that times have changed and that an old-school hustla like him has to get with the program. He has to — at the end of the pilot episode, he learns that Shay, who is now married to a white guy (Ryan Gaul), has two twin, teenage kids (Taylor Mosby and Dante Hoagland) who are also his.
In order to prove he’s ready to take on dad responsibilities, Barker gets a job at a Starbucks-esque coffee shop — coincidentally ran by his former boss Wavy — where he works under a high-strung stickler for the rules (Edi Patterson). As for his living arrangements, he bunks at a halfway house with other ex-cons, ran by Miniard Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), a wannabe stand-up comic whose insult of choice is “dicklicker.”
I gotta say, O.G. is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in life. Created by recent Oscar winner Jordan Peele and Eastbound and Down/Vice Principals writer John Carcieri (who stepped down as showrunner after production wrapped last fall), the show seems to consist mostly of ad-libbed scenes where Morgan comes up with the craziest possible shit to say at every moment. And, just in case you’re wondering about one of his signature bits, in the second episode he does tell a girl he might get her pregnant.
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But what makes O.G. so fresh and appealing is how, while it’s a laugh riot, the characters are both written and portrayed as grounded, fully realized folk. Barker may have gotten pinched with drugs back in the day, but the man works hard not to make the same mistakes he did as a young knucklehead. And because of this, Morgan shines so much in this role. He plays Barker as a smooth, charming gent on a mission to be seen as an upstanding member of society. Whether he’s hipping his kids on how he and their mother first got together or working to impress a woman he met through a dating app (even as he keeps making the mistake of calling her by her ex’s name), Morgan plays Barker as a dude always out to do the right thing, even if the end result doesn’t come out so successful. Morgan does a fascinating job showing us not just a black man trying to live after spending a chunk of time in the joint, but a man just trying to live, period.
Barker isn’t the only character who tries to do right. Anybody dumb enough to think Haddish is just a ratchet loudmouth should peep the work she does as Shay. Shay stubbornly tries to keep Barker distant from his kids, but Haddish makes it clear that Shay’s intentions aren’t cruel — she’s simply committed to keeping them away from the ghetto life that almost sucked her up whole. Even Gaul’s beleaguered husband is characterized less as a stereotypically goofy white guy than as a husband and stepdad struggling to connect with his family. Yes, O.G. pulls off what has sadly become a rare feat in contemporary sitcoms: It gives you characters who not only make you laugh out loud, but also make you root for them.
In its own foul-mouthed-yet-humanist way, The Last O.G. shows how people who once made mistakes try like crazy not to repeat them — and Tracy Morgan does wonderful, award-caliber work reminding viewers that’s how all grown-ass men and women should roll.
The Last O.G. airs Tuesdays on TBS