I’m one of those people who, since “30 Rock,” thinks Tracy Morgan could read a phone book out loud and make it funny. With his hangdog face and his boyish pronunciations, he is a complete natural. He doesn’t need to set up big punchlines; he just speaks, over-pronouncing words, altering their emphasis, stumbling into malapropisms, and it’s hilarious. Yes, I shamelessly enjoyed hearing Morgan, in his new TBS series, “The Last O.G.,” say to a white woman, “Do you just want to see another black man in the penile system?”
I expected “The Last O.G.,” which premieres Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., to depend on Morgan’s singular delivery for laughs. And it does, plenty, including his cheering, “Go Justin, go Justin,” in a flashback to the night of the first “American Idol” finale. But the single-camera show, co-created by Jordan Peele and John Carcieri, is much more than an excuse for Morgan’s comic stylings. It’s also a sometimes-moving story that has a streak of sadness and regret as well as a message of healing. Each of the six episodes available for review was balanced effectively between humor and honest emotion, with Morgan a more mature presence than you might expect.
The story is about second chances, which, now that Morgan is back working after the 2014 traffic accident that left him in bad physical shape, has extra resonance. Morgan’s Tray has just gotten out of prison after serving 15 years on a drug charge. During his incarceration, he grew up some, read the dictionary, and fantasized about reuniting with his one great love, Shay (Tiffany Haddish), even though she refused to visit him and has moved on with her life. He returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood, and he lives in a halfway house headed up by Miniard Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), a guy whose aspirations to be a stand-up comic are clearly deluded. While Tray was in prison, Brooklyn became a hipster haven, but “The Last O.G.” wisely keeps the predictable gentrification jokes to a minimum — at least after the uneven premiere.
And yes, I did say Tiffany Haddish. The actress, who broke through last year in the movie “Girls Trip,” is a bright, energetic presence on the show, as she was on “The Carmichael Show.” Like Morgan, she’s a natural, but unlike Morgan’s character, she does not suffer fools. We quickly learn that Shay has teen twins who look suspiciously like Tray, and that she has married a white guy, Josh (“She’s my queen,” Tray says, “she just got lost”). When Tray comes sniffing around, hoping to get back in her life and spend time with the kids, she’ll have none of it. Her rage toward him is profound, and Haddish is as powerful in those moments as she is in the more comic situations. Her every word lands.
I admire the way “The Last O.G.” doesn’t bother toying with us about the real paternity of Shay’s kids. The show avoids a few common pitfalls, as it keeps its focus on Tray’s sincere efforts to rebuild his life and become a chef — he learned how to mix candy bars into a “dessert loaf” when he was behind bars. Ultimately, he’s a pretty good guy. We see him on an affectionate Tinder date, and we see him ably come to terms with a woman — played by Chrissy Metz from “This Is Us” — he romanced from prison. While Morgan stays somewhat low-key, many of the characters around him are broad, including the men in his halfway house and his boss at the coffee shop where he works, an amusingly officious chain-restaurant manager played by Edi Patterson.
I can’t say “The Last O.G.” is a triumph; the writing would need to cut even deeper for that, and every single jail-shower joke would need to miraculously disappear. But it’s nonetheless a promising vehicle for Morgan, and I’m eager to see where it goes.
THE LAST O.G.
Starring: Tracy Morgan, Tiffany Haddish, Cedric the Entertainer, Ryan Gaul, Allen Maldonado, Malik Yoba, Taylor Mosby, Dante Hoagland, Edi Patterson
On: TBS, Tuesday at 10:30 p.m.