‘The Last O.G.’: TV Review | SXSW 2018

When it comes to timing, it’s hard to get luckier or better than The Last O.G.

Launching at SXSW ahead of its TBS premiere on April 3, the big hook of The Last O.G. was, or was supposed to be, Tracy Morgan’s return to series television nearly four years after a 2014 traffic accident that nearly ended his life. Obviously Morgan remains the show’s star and his presence remains an important part of the narrative around the single-cam comedy, but since the pilot was picked up in 2016, it has come to mean something very different to have a new series co-created by now-Oscar winner Jordan Peele and co-starring Tiffany Haddish.

The Bottom Line The transition from prison-rape jokes to more grounded material isn't smooth.

Air date: Apr 03, 2018

With those two juicy promotional hooks, though, come elevated expectations that maybe The Last O.G. isn’t equipped to equal. Through six episodes sent to critics, it’s an interesting comedy, and one prepared to take a few big swings. It just isn’t especially funny or consistent, and this isn’t a “Oh, we’re going for arty over humorous” FX or Amazon-style comedy. It wants to be broad and riotous without real success, only to find its value someplace more somber.

Peele co-created The Last O.G. with John Carcieri, and the pilot was directed by Jorma Taccone. The story begins in September 2002, specifically the night of the first American Idol finale. Tray (Morgan) leaves his girlfriend Shay (Haddish) to make a quick corner-store run before the climactic Justin/Kelly showdown. He’s pinched on a drug charge and, after refusing to dime on his friend Wavy (Malik Yoba), spends 15 years in prison. Cut to 2017 and Tray emerges from jail a changed man determined to inspire and uplift with the hard lessons he’s learned. At a halfway house run by aspiring comedian Miniard Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), Tray realizes he’s far from the only ex-con to return to straight life with the same goal. He also discovers that gentrification has rendered the Brooklyn he once knew unrecognizable and even Shay has gotten gentrified, marrying well-meaning hipster Josh (Ryan Gaul) and raising the two teenaged children (Taylor Mosby’s Amira and Dante Hoagland’s Shahzad) Tray didn’t know existed.

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There’s an unavoidable mixture of inspiration and melancholy in the echoes between the plot of The Last O.G. and Morgan’s real story. Morgan hasn’t been gone for 15 years, but four years limited to one Saturday Night Live guest-hosting gig and a Netflix special is a long time in Hollywood. Most of Morgan’s recovery has been conducted out of the public eye, and he’s much improved from that SNL episode and his surprise cameo at the 2015 Emmys. Just as Tray is slowly feeling his way around the new Brooklyn and trying to figure out which of his old criminal skills and his new prison aptitudes are still relevant, you can’t help but sense Morgan feeling his way around what he can and can’t still do from his comic prime. He doesn’t always look physically comfortable, and there are some beats on which the exaggerated outrage that was so central to his comic timing isn’t as precise as it once was. What’s there instead is gravity and maturity. When Morgan turns down the volume on his comic shtick and the show becomes about opportunities missed with Shay and his kids, when it focuses on his struggles fitting in with a world that kept going without him, there’s heft that wasn’t necessarily there before.

Despite the star-studded behind-the-camera team, the pilot gives off the sensation of a show that wasn’t quite sure which Tracy Morgan they were working with. It’s loud and broad, and the reliance on facile prison-rape jokes is both predictable and unfortunate. A representative example of the pilot’s tonal difficulty comes in a conversation between Tray and Bobby (Allen Madonado), the younger brother of one of Tray’s friends, a gangster who died while Tray was in prison. When Tray laments, “I feel like Rip Van Winkle in this motherfucker and I don’t even know who he is,” the mixture of confusion and loss are poignant right up until Tray starts warning the younger Bobby that if he goes to prison, “They would turn your butthole into a parking garage.” Sigh. The pilot is the Last O.G. episode that feels most jokey, and it’s the least effective of the six episodes and also the last of the episodes credited to Peele, who may have become busy with other things.

The show still boasts an impressive writing staff including Diarra Kilpatrick, Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin, who appear to have been tasked with often more serious goals. There’s a touching episode, infused with classic New York City rom-com aesthetic touches, in which Tray joins Tinder and goes out on an unexpectedly sweet date with a single mother (Heather Simms), even though he doubts he’s ready to move past Shay. Another darkness-tinged half-hour finds Tray hoping to support Shay at her mother’s funeral and also avoiding his sexually voracious prison fling, Pooh Cat, aggressively played by This Is Us star Chrissy Metz, as you’ve surely never seen her before. These episodes sometimes push the more overt comic gestures to Cedric the Entertainer and Maldonado to let Morgan go more understated, but only the Tinder episode stands out as notably amusing. I hope future episodes give Maldonado, a versatile actor and writer who has stolen scenes in Black-ish to Survivor’s Remorse, more to do.

Haddish is in a tough situation as well. I went into the series wondering how big a waste this was going to be of her talents, having to be the wet blanket ex in a vehicle for a different star. Instead, The Last O.G. really tries to make Shay’s frustration and conflict at Tray’s return feel real. Haddish is a tough actress to contain, and here she’s containing herself, sticking to the script and working as a complementary piece. Since Shay has transformed herself into a presentable figure in the community, early episodes make little use of Haddish’s spontaneous energy and, of course, the show could use more of that. What show couldn’t?

I wonder if The Last O.G. might have been a different series if the writers had recognized from the beginning that it was going to be better as a bittersweet show about mistakes and the passing of time instead of the “Prison rape and white folks’ enjoyment of overpriced coffee are equally absurd” hash it starts as. The series arrives on TBS at the end of a multiyear creative journey, and I can’t really recommend it based on the first six episodes, though I can see the things it’s trying to do and the adjustments it’s trying to make. I’ll watch the rest of the 10-episode first season to monitor if it’s getting closer.

Cast: Tracy Morgan, Tiffany Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer, Allen Maldonado, Ryan Gaul, Taylor Mosby, Dante Hoagland
Creators: John Carcieri and Jordan Peele
Premieres: Tuesday, April 3, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (TBS)