One nice thing — and from a human standpoint perhaps the nicest thing — about "The Last O.G.," a new TBS sitcom starring Tracy Morgan, is that the fact that the actor nearly died in a 2014 auto accident is not evident on-screen.
Morgan is in good form here, funny and odd and as healthy as he’s ever seemed; he has the quality of being both a capable actor and helplessly himself, which is to say, he is never like anybody else. (I say this knowing little about his actual real self. This is just the vibe he puts out.)
Morgan, formerly of "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," plays Tray, who has spent 15 years in prison for dealing drugs and comes out with a vocation — to his self-described "humble" mind, he "might be the best chef the world has ever known" — and a mission: "It's time for me to go out to the world and make it a better place with my sage advice."
But the world has changed too, and Tray's old Brooklyn 'hood has been gentrified nearly beyond recognition. Almost the first words he hears are, "It's not starred — it's Michelin-rated. It's a huge difference." This is followed closely by a mother telling her stroller-bound baby, "Honey, have some seaweed — open up — seaweed is alkalizing. Gas is good for digestion."
"I feel like Rip van Winkle," Tray will later say. "And I don't even know who he is."
What's more, at the halfway house to which he has been assigned, he is told that every ex-con arrives home with a mission to make the world a better place with his sage advice.
"Too many mentors, not enough mentees," says Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs the place. Mullins’ concept of the job is mostly to afflict his charges with stand-up and improv. ("How about a little prop comedy? Anybody got a prop I could use?") Tray, for his part, having failed to find employment as a “head chef,” winds up working for his old drug boss, now running a coffee franchise.
Tray also finds that his old girlfriend, Shay (Tiffany Haddish, “Girls Trip”), whom he had assumed would wait for him in spite of not having heard from her in 15 years, has moved up in the world, now going by Shannon and raising money from the rich to provide beds for the homeless.
On top of that, she's gotten married, and on top of that, he's a very white sort of white guy (Ryan Gaul as, what else, Josh), who writes TV copy for food personality Anthony Bourdain ("So when you think of Myanmar, don't think of hateful, hard-lined Buddhists or the fourth 'Rambo' movie — think of delectable deep dish pizza.").
Most important, he learns that the twins Shay and Josh are raising (Taylor Mosby and Dante Hoagland) are his biological children. His feelings toward them are unabashedly fatherly, and he insinuates himself into their lives.
Premiering Tuesday, “The Last O.G.” has taken some time to reach the screen. Created by Jordan Peele (of "Key and Peele" and "Get Out") and John Carcieri (who wrote for "Eastbound & Down" and "Vice Principals"), it began at FX, before moving to TBS and losing Carcieri as showrunner, just before its originally scheduled fall 2017 premiere. (During that journey, Peele became an Oscar-winning screenwriter and Haddish one of Hollywood’s hottest stars.)
Indeed, the series still seems to be searching for an identity, trying on different looks as it goes.
The show is by turns sentimental and unseemly. There is a lot of genital humor, though as Mullins points out, "The phallus is the No. 1 piece of universal comedy gold." Still, you may reasonably wonder what to make of a joke whose punchline is "Beating my kids." The writing can feel strained and obvious. There is an internet dating episode, a school bully episode, a scene in which a streetwalker is taken to a fancy restaurant. You have seen those, if you’ve watched much television.
To the extent that it is politically incorrect (if that is still the term), "The Last O.G." clearly wants you to know that it is aware of this fact — that the opinions expressed by its characters do not necessarily reflect those of the management, that we are being asked to laugh at knuckleheads, even if they are knuckleheads out to better themselves.
There are mentions of diabetes — specifically to ignore it — and inclusive notions of manhood that seem placed to acknowledge unfortunate episodes in Morgan’s own life, and to suggest by their presence that the actor has grown since.
Across the six (of 10) episodes I've seen, there has been some effort expended to give the characters weight — this is especially necessary in the case of Josh, whom we need to take as something more than a convenient choice for Shay to have made. And Tray is a study in evolving responsible action.
Even when the show is disappointing, it somehow remains likable. It could be better; it isn’t bad. As the story of an indomitable person coming back to a changed world, it has some of the attitude, and the sunniness, of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Lines may fall flat, but there is enough chemistry among the players — the stars, the guests and the regulars, notably including Allen Maldonado ("black-ish") as Tray's intensely cheerful young cousin Bobby — to keep “The Last O.G” decent, indecent company.
‘The Last O.G.’
When: 10:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)