There’s really nothing like hearing Tracy Morgan call someone a motherfucker, and in 2018, only “The Last O.G.” offers audiences this distinct pleasure. Though bleeped (“O.G.” is on TBS, mind you), Morgan’s marble-mouthed warble, charged to the hilt by America’s most dependable curse word, still conveys the raw power and careful timing needed to make it hilarious, and he goes back to the well just often enough to make it memorable in the new comedy’s first six episodes.
In that uncanny utterance, illustrating Morgan’s broad appeal, “The Last O.G.” is already a show worth watching, and he’s only half of a dynamic duo. Tiffany Haddish is here, too, dropping censored swears and cold-cocking former friends. She’s a force as much as she constitutes the show’s limitations overall: Very good yet not yet great, the rest of the series gets a lot right early on without making a move to the top tier of television. That may nag at some who come in with ultra-high expectations, but Haddish and Morgan are marvelous, and “The Last O.G.” could easily coast for six seasons on their charm alone.
Of course, that’s to be expected: With John Carcieri (“Eastbound & Down,” “Vice Principals”) running the show and recent Oscar winner Jordan Peele on board as a co-creator and executive producer, that “The Last O.G.” amiably goes off without a hitch is no surprise. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the six episodes is how many predictable pitfalls are avoided.
Tray (Morgan) is released from prison after a 15-year stint and returns home to Brooklyn, but things aren’t the same. A mother pushing a twin stroller almost runs into him. Tourists use a selfie stick to get a shot of them in bedazzled Brooklyn t-shirts. Another mom coaxes her child to “eat the seaweed.” It’s safe to say this isn’t the same street where he was busted for dealing crack cocaine.
Of course it is, but “The Last O.G.” doesn’t spend much time pointing out just how much the neighborhood has changed. It doesn’t ignore the gentrification either, but rather than crack simple joke after simple joke about privileged white people, Carcieri builds the commentary into the story. Wavy (Malik Yoba), Tray’s old partner in crime, is now hawking a new con: coffee. He sells it to “white people with jobs” for five bucks a pop and says he’s making more money than when he was dealing crack. There’s a substantial reveal in Episode 4, “Swipe Right,” that highlights explicit class-based thievery, and more sharp commentary is peppered throughout.
To go along with that, Tray isn’t a grumpy old man complaining about how his community has changed. He’s got a positive, infectious attitude and embraces Brooklyn with open arms. When he gets out of prison, his first thought is to mentor anyone back home who needs his help, so they can avoid a similar fate. So after he learns the kids back home are all preppy hipsters eating gluten-free lunches in private school, he doesn’t get frustrated — he turns his attentions to his cousin Bobby (Allen Maldonado). When he struggles to find a job as an ex-con, he doesn’t go dark and blame the system (the show does that for him) — he perseveres and kills them with kindness.
Really, it’s a perfect part for the ever-lovable Morgan (who also executive produces), but his character’s genial demeanor elevates the entire show and illustrates how “The Last O.G.” rarely settles for the easiest path. The premise isn’t merely an excuse to mine nostalgia. There are flashbacks to the old days, but they don’t overshadow the here and now. What matters is Tray’s mission to win back the woman he loves, Shay (Tiffany Haddish), and that brings us to the series’ few flaws.
Because Haddish is in her own cultural stratosphere right now, that her role is noticeably one-dimensional is even more glaring. Shay is the woman Tray wants to be with. She has good reasons for moving on, but she’s still tied to her one-time one-and-only. Beyond that, we see what her life is like without him, but her identity is always used to serve Tray’s story: She gives two heartfelt speeches in the first five episodes, and both are mainly there so Tray can show up and steal the show. (Not in a bad way, mind you — Tray is a sweetheart, but the scenes are still all about him.)
Because she’s more of a supporting player in “The Tray Show” than an equal partner in the “Tray & Shay Comedy Bonanza,” Haddish gets fleeting moments to strut her stuff. She makes the most of them, but anyone expecting this to be her show as much as it is Jordan’s is in for a bit of a letdown.
If Episode 7 is a standalone half-hour for Shay — much like “Atlanta” better defined Zazie Beetz’s Van in her own Season 1 episode — that could do a lot for the character and the show. She clearly deserves it (and not just because we want to see more Haddish), but “The Last O.G.” also needs to take a few more risks if it wants to elevate itself to the next level. For as pleasant and surprising as its first six episodes were, most of the joy comes from avoiding mistakes instead of illustrating grand ambition — and this kind of talent in front of and behind the camera should be ambitious A.F., as the kids say. If the comedy wants to be a clever, foul-mouthed sitcom with broad appeal rooted in its affable performers, that’s more than fine. But it’s not very gangster.
“The Last O.G.” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. Season 1 premieres Tuesday, April 3 at 10:30 p.m. ET on TBS.