[Caution: mild spoilers about The Last O.G. ahead.]
The Last O.G.' style of comedy is goofy and unapologetically retro, evidenced by the Def Comedy Jam-era crack in the first episode, when Tray (Tracy Morgan) tells his girl Shay (Tiffany Haddish) he wants her booty to be as big as a cartoon centaur's. "Mythological booty!," the divine Haddish shoots back. It's a joke that puts the comedy, tonally at least, in the same family as absurdist lowbrow triumphs like Friday or Martin. The Last O.G.'s comedy is good, but where it's most provocative is in its depiction of a nightmare.
The series starts with Tray confessing that he keeps having the same recurring dream which always starts the same way: Tray getting arrested on a Brooklyn block for selling crack and sent to do 15 years upstate. As with Get Out, from The Last O.G. executive producer Jordan Peele, The Last O.G. blends genres to create a hypnotic mood with social commentary as subtext. The half of The Last O.G. that's a comedy comes from Tray being a dopey, fish-out-of-water old-school street hustler who returns from a bid to find the world is different. It's funny, if occasionally clumsy, but The Last O.G's darkness is its sweet spot. Tray might make everyone laugh, but he's a living nightmare — one of countless black men lost to mass incarceration, and the gradual colonization of Brooklyns everywhere where men like Tray vanish into thin air very day. Tray should have been eradicated a long time ago, but actually makes it back home only to find he's been shunted to the margins, haunting the perimeter of 2018 life like some doofus ghost. It's a true black joke.
Across the country, African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of whites. In New York circa 2016, they were more than half the prison population, even though black men were just 14 percent of the state population. From 2004 — around the time Tray went to prison — to 2010, three million people in New York City were stopped and frisked, most of them black and Latino men in their own neighborhoods. Tray, unlike most of the men the ACLU says were unjustly searched during that time, had committed a crime. But, as he says in the second episode, "All my life people told me I'd never be good at anything," lamenting that it's too bad people can't get accolades for selling crack. Deathly funny sure, but the moment cements that Tray spent his formative years under-trained and underemployed. His environment was engineered to doom him from the start. In fact, New York state was literally spending $1 million a year to send entire blocks of people in black Brooklyn neighborhoods to jail and prison as recently as 2009, according to research group The Justice Mapping Center. When he went away, he was one of the 1.5 million black men the New York Times called "missing" from society due to incarceration or dying young.
Despite all odds, Tray comes back, defeated but still scurrying upward, like some hilarious drunk uncle cockroach. Most of the best comedy comes from Tray's infantile outlook, and the fact that he's a Big Daddy Kane-through-Wu-Tang era O.G. lost in a new artisanal and inclusive Brooklyn. Morgan's signature mush-mouthed, disgruntled old man style and sophomoric "Yo Momma!" cracks are, for people into that sort of thing, consistently gold; so is his total cluelessness when trying to mack on customers in the snooty coffee shop where he works. But the best joke is the underlying sadness. Later in the season, a high-end business steals one of Tray's ideas and sells it at a high profit. The reveal is played for laughs but it's actually chilling; The Last O.G. says that, in addition to everything else, Tray's real creativity and ingenuity will never get actualized...but it will be exploited for profit. Nothing about seeing oppression play out in real time sounds like a great time, but like Get Out, The Last O.G. mines the comical absurdity of suffocating racism.
In cities like Brooklyn, gentrification usually conjures up images of cute coffee shops replacing decaying urban spaces. Less seen are the immigrants, struggling single parents and dudes like Tray who developers and the city itself tell to get out. Tray served his time and gets released back into society. But where does he go? Where does a man with no job, no credit, no Internet savvy even start? How does he survive, and what does he do with the rage and sadness? How does he stay out of prison? Tray's bad dream pins The Last O.G. to a specific type of American nightmare. Yet there's hope. Tray has a job, a support group, led by Mullins (Cedric the Entertainer), and a not-altogether inept sidekick (his cousin Bobby played by Allen Maldonado) and family, with Shay and his newfound twins. Tray, thank goodness, still might be able to make something of himself. Though he shows up at job interviews in an ill-fitting suit and no skill set, he has pride and dignity, which is remarkable given the circumstances.
To the state, Tray was just a number. To the public and even his own family, he was a phantom. The Last O.G. shows a man with a heart that beats, joy, regret, ideas fears and a story to tell — even if what mostly comes out is crass dick jokes.
The Last O.G. airs Tuesdays at 10:30/9:30c.