New York City

‘The Last O.G.’ is the only thing on TV that gets NYC right

“The Last O.G.,” the TBS sitcom starring Tracy Morgan that just finished its second season, gets New York City, Brooklyn, race and class right in a way TV shows rarely do, writes City & State’s Ben Adler.

Tracy Morgan as Tray Barke in "The Last O.G."

Tracy Morgan as Tray Barke in "The Last O.G." Francisco Roman/TBS TV/Kobal/Shutterstock

“The Last O.G.,” the TBS sitcom about Tray Barker, a lifelong Brooklynite who comes home after 15 years in prison for selling crack and finds his neighborhood transformed by rich newcomers, is funny, trenchant and relentlessly pitch-perfect in its depiction of Brownstone Brooklyn and how gentrification has upended its communities. The show has an all-star cast: The genius comedian Tracy Morgan – who grew up in Bed-Stuy – stars opposite Tiffany Haddish, and Jordan Peele is one of the show’s creators. (The second season just finished airing; the first is available on Netflix.) As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote, “It’s not all easy hipster jokes, nor does the series minimize the real pains and complications of gentrification. ‘The Last O.G.’ has a true and wise heart, with Morgan’s surprisingly layered, lived-in performance.”

Since gentrified Brooklyn is an obsession in the media, you’d think this show would be the most-blogged, most-tweeted and most-discussed after “Game of Thrones.” You would be wrong. Perhaps that has something to do with whose story is being told.

Whereas “Girls” provoked innumerable think pieces complaining about the lack of characters of color in the show’s first season, the presence of nuanced, resonant black characters on “The Last O.G.” has been largely overlooked. Even a clever, updated interpolation of Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film “Do the Right Thing” in the recent season two finale – Sal, the film’s pizzeria owner has been replaced by an arrogant white real estate developer – didn’t elicit a peep from the chattering classes. If “Girls” had done anything half as provocative and incisive, the Internet would have short-circuited from all the hot takes. 

“The Last O.G.” never specifies which neighborhood it is set in, and the on-location shots are gathered from all over the western half of the borough. The neighborhood has brownstones and housing projects, yuppies who are mostly white but sometimes black and was crime-ridden until relatively recently. From those clues, and a few others, it appears that it is somewhere in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill/Bed-Stuy area, or perhaps Crown Heights. 

The “Do the Right Thing” episode, including its cameo from Brooklyn rap great Talib Kweli, captured everything that makes “The Last O.G.” so unique: It told the story of class and racial oppression and conflict, privilege and poverty from the perspective of the oppressed. We see the argument with the developer through Morgan’s character’s eyes. We laugh knowingly, but also feel pain, at his accurate observation that the images of future residents on luxury tower promotional displays always feature mostly white people – even when the neighborhood it’s coming to is still mostly black or Latino. 

Other recent shows set in gentrified or gentrifying neighborhoods, such as “How I Met Your Mother,” “Girls” and “Broad City,” have enjoyed enormous, mostly enthusiastic media coverage. That’s often deserved, especially in the case of “Broad City,” which is deeply creative and sometimes hilarious. But one must wonder whether the fact that these are shows made by and about white people who moved to their hip neighborhood after college is why they are so richly appreciated – and why “The Last O.G.” is underappreciated. For example, while Slate has only made passing reference to “The Last O.G.” in two items on other subjects, a search for “Lena Dunham” and “Girls” on Slate.com brings up more than 300 items.

TV shows set in gentrified neighborhoods are often told solely from the perspective of the gentrifiers. In other cases, including many of the most-watched shows set in New York, they completely lack the perspective or attitude of anyone who lives in the neighborhood at all. Consider corny and inauthentic – but well-reviewed and highly rated – shows such as “Friends” or, more recently, “2 Broke Girls.” The sets look like New York City only in the sense that a theme-park ride might: cutesified, with improbably commodious and light-filled apartments. The characters look, talk and dress like the Middle Americans they are appealing to, not New Yorkers of any sort. In a typical scene in “2 Broke Girls,” which takes place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one character tells a joke set in the parking lot of an IHOP in neighboring Greenpoint. There are no sitdown chain restaurants with parking lots in Greenpoint. Nothing about the joke – IHOPs, parking lots, hokey, unironic humor – feels at home in North Brooklyn. But the joke, like the show itself, wasn’t for anyone who knows anything about Greenpoint or Williamsburg. (While “The Last O.G.” is not immune to such errors – private schools in Park Slope do not have lacrosse teams, for example – they are comparatively rare, minor and technical rather than atmospheric.) 

Even some of the earlier sitcoms about black households in Brooklyn were only partial exceptions. “The Cosby Show” and “Living Single” were about high-earning professionals who lived across the river from their white counterparts. On “Cosby,” the humor’s reference points and sensibility were often as suburban as “Family Matters.” A running theme on “Cosby” was how the teenage son always wanted to borrow his parents’ car; one wonders, living in Brooklyn Heights, why Theo Huxtable preferred dealing with traffic and parking to just taking the subway.

“The Last O.G.” is, finally, a show about black Brownstone Brooklyn, told from the perspective of actual native black Brooklynites. The characters have come from, and wound up all over, the wide spectrum of economically diverse Brooklyn: the stickup man, played with wry toughness by Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan, Barker’s chronically broke and always-scheming cousin, Haddish’s upwardly mobile fashion executive, and Barker's mother, the resolutely respectable church lady. The humor and reference points are Brooklyn, New York and urban to their heart. The slang and music are always on point. Each episode of Season Two is named in honor of a hip-hop song, including classics by KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. 

Whereas sitcom scenes are typically set in locations conducive to filming on a studio set – and in which white suburbanites and yuppies congregate – such as living rooms and cafes, “The Last O.G.” characters live, like people really from Brooklyn do, out in the neighborhood: sitting on a park bench, standing on a sidewalk or walking down the avenue. One true-to-life exception is the barbershop, which Morgan’s character introduces his son to, because of its centrality in the African-American community. 

The varying spaces affect the communal life that takes shape within them. As Brentin Mock observed in a 2017 article about how “Friends” ripped off “Living Single”: “The defining aspects of a cafe – dim, ambient, indoors – also run opposite to the louder and brighter claims on outdoor public space found in black gathering spots like the block, the stoop, and the front porch. Indoor black congregating spots like barbershops encourage the kind of joyous banter that would be immediately shhh-ed in a cafe.” But the phenomenon goes beyond race: Even us white Brooklyn kids can be loud and uninhibited – just ask Bernie Sanders.

That’s why, to this Brooklynite of a certain age, watching “The Last O.G.” is like hearing Sanders speak: It’s a rare opportunity to see our little corner of the world accurately represented on a national stage. 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.