TV Picks: Franco roast, late-night, ‘Blandings,’ ‘Regular Show’

Polymath actor James Franco is the object of "The Comedy Central Roast of James Franco."
(Kevin Winter / Getty Images for Comedy Central)

“Comedy Central Roast of James Franco” (Comedy Central, Monday). James Franco keeps busy in a way that troubles some people; he is perceived as a dilettante, a man whose reach – here, there and everywhere – often exceeds his grasp. “James Franco, acting, teaching, directing, writing, producing, photography, soundtracks, editing – is there anything you can do?” Natasha Leggero will ask in this already-filmed special, as the actor-cum-you-name-it is turned on a spit by some of his famous friends and a few people he knows less well, or possibly not at all. And yet, it is hard not to admire his go-for-it attitude. Life is short, and whether or not art is long (most of it is shorter even than a short life), you might as well do what you feel, however much the less lucky may deride you for it. And Franco’s side projects (all his projects are side projects, in a way) are not limited to arty overreach (short stories, painting); he’s also been on “General Hospital,” and not just as a walk-on. Now he has said yes to following the likes of William Shatner, Flavor Flav, David Hasselhof, Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump as the object of a Comedy Central roast.

Hosted by Seth Rogen -- Ken Miller to Franco’s Daniel Desario in “Freaks & Geeks,” and lately his co-star and director (with Evan Goldberg) in “This Is the End” -- it may be seen, after that film and Franco’s misadventurous hosting of the Academy Award (“Look at me doing all the talking while you sit there doing nothing,” Rogen will say, “I feel like I’m co-hosting the Oscars with you”), as the third installment of a deconstructionist self-referential post-modern meta-trilogy. Indeed, that is how Franco will play it when he finally takes the stage: “This is not a roast. This is my greatest, most elaborate art installation ever.” Still, there is no indication that the participants -- also including Jonah Hill, Aziz Ansari, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Nick Kroll, Jeff Ross and Sarah Silverman -- will hijack the form to some subversive, piratical end; it looks to be the usual mix of tuxedos and uncomfortable near-truths. (Nick Kroll: “James Franco is truly our generation’s James Dean: so handsome that you forget he’s only been in two good movies.”) Still, the relative youth of the company does suggest at least a generational shift. Hill on Silverman: “Everyone’s like, ‘She’s hot for a comic.’ I don’t agree. She’s not just hot for a comic. She’s hot for someone her age.” (Silverman on Hill: “Right before the show started, Seth Rogen rolled a gigantic fatty. Because that was the only way we could get Jonah Hill onto the stage.”) Kids!

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The Daily Show (Comedy Central, weeknights); “Totally Biased with Kamau Bell” (FXX, weeknights). Jon Stewart returns to “The Daily Show” this Tuesday (post-holiday weekend), having spent his summer working vacation as a first-time movie director. (See James Franco, above.) With all due respect to John Oliver, his more-than-able stand-in over the last several weeks, Stewart is the Dean of Fake News -- he has the gray hair, anyway. And though he was not the first host of this show, it is indisputably his. Another late-night topical-comedy talk show, “Totally Biased with Kamau Bell,” also returns to the air after a break this week, moving from FX to the new FXX, the laffcentric FX offshoot that has an extra “X” in it, and going from weekly to daily in the bargain. Though they share certain aspects, including a cast of writer-"correspondents,” there are of course great gulfs between them. Stewart, according to a recent report by TV Guide, is the highest paid host in late-night (and makes oodles more than non-fake-news anchors); Bell must be somewhere near the bottom of that list. Stewart’s show is big and flashy, amplifying the casino-spaceship aesthetic of cable news; Bell’s has the flavor of folding chairs in a rented room, an informality that works well for him -- he comes off sweet and approachable, a friendly presence even when relating some particularly outrageous bit of news. He’s black too, which is not beside the point, and young, which is also not beside the point.

“Blandings” (Acorn Media DVD). I must have been about 17 when I first encountered the works of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in a small collection I found in a used bookstore – I will explain “books” and “stores” to you another time -- they were just something we used to have, back in the 20th century. There is now a corner of my brain that is forever England, peopled with comical aristocrats, capable servants and colorful assorted others, their speech full of singular similes and metaphors and original figures of speech. ITV’s six-episode “Blandings,” which ran in the U.K. earlier this year and arrives here on DVD this week (another season has been ordered), adapts the second most famous of Wodehouse’s creations, the Blandings Castle stories surrounding Clarence Threepwood, ninth Earl of Emsworth, his kin, butler and prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. While not on the sublime order of “Jeeves and Wooster” (1990-1993) in which Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie made that man and valet theirs for the foreseeable future, or “Wodehouse Playhouse,” in the 1970s, in which Pauline Collins and John Alderton played a variety of love-challenged couples, it does have Timothy Spall, Jennifer Saunders and Mark Williams in it. (Americans will most readily know the men from “Harry Potter” movies and Saunders from “Absolutely Fabulous.”)

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Some critics have pointed out that Spall, who is short and round is not Lord Emsworth as Wodehouse described him -- Ralph Richardson, who played him in a 1960s series, and Peter O'Toole, who took the part in the BBC’s 1995 “Heavy Weather,” were closer to the mark -- but most viewers will not be afflicted with such knowledge, and he is the right size to fit comfortably with Saunders (as his imperious sister, Lady Constance Keeble) in a medium-close two-shot. Guy Andrews’ adaptations are at times a little broad -- a strange accusation to make against material so bumptious at its source, even as the pace can seem, paradoxically, to drag a little. Red flags go up here and there: I’m pretty sure no character in a Wodehouse book ever said, “How the hell are you?,” nor can I remember any flatulence jokes or badminton-based euphemisms for homosexuality, or a butler playing Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train.” There is a weak running gag in which Clarence’s son Freddie (Jack Farthing) who out-Woosters even Bertie and whose hair in some scenes seems to have been styled by Munchkins, runs his car into a tree. And yet for those who prefer their stately homes more comical than tragical, and who like their comedy in period dress, this is a pleasant and stimulating diversion, full of farcical intrigue and romance (and avoidance thereof). David Walliams, from “Little Britain.” shows up in a couple of episodes.

“Regular Show” (Cartoon Network, Mondays). Regular Show, the Cartoon Network cult item that isn’t “Adventure Time,” returns for a fifth season (which is not to say year -- it debuted in 2010). Its cast: a blue jay, a raccoon, a kind of lollipop man, a Yeti with the voice of Lionel Stander (Mark Hamill, actually), a fat little green monster, Hi-Five Ghost (a video-game spook with a hand growing out of the top its body-head and a walking gumball machine, the boss of them all. (The characters live and work together in “a park.”) For all its eccentricity, it seems the less original series; nevertheless, I recently watched a million episodes in a row -- I think it was a million -- and have come to like its unique and assured mix of slacker buddy-comedy, workplace sitcom (work-avoidance sitcom, better said), funny-animal cartoon and dimension-slipping monster movie. (There are almost always monsters, eventually, and they are splendidly conceived.) Not to deal in gender stereotypes, but the series (created by J. G. Quintel, also the voice of the blue jay, Mordecai) is very much a Comedy of Dudes; female characters, when they appear, seem to have been created mostly for form, or to distract the males, who would mostly rather hang out with one another and play games, watch movies or party. Which mostly leads to trouble. There is some sad human truth in this.