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Television review: 'Teach: Tony Danza' on A&E

The actor's rookie classroom experience may be contrived, but it's also fascinating to watch what happens when good intentions meet reality via high school students.

October 01, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

It would be easy to dismiss A&E's new reality show "Teach: Tony Danza" as the vanity project of a faded TV actor. But it would be wrong. Not inaccurate, perhaps, but wrong. "Teach" is an oddly compelling and increasingly addictive little show.

If you can get over that Danza cries no fewer than four times in the pilot.

And I would urge you to try, because by the third or fourth episode, "Teach" becomes increasingly subtle and affecting. Not only does it provide a bracing contrast to the antics of "Glee," but it's also a rare example of a reality show that neither panders nor proselytizes.

But first we have to spend a lot of time with Danza, who according to the promo material, wanted to be a teacher long before he became a boxer turned actor. So when he heard President Obama encourage Americans to give back, Danza decided to give it a shot in the classroom.

A noble intention inevitably diminished by the "oh, and I'll turn it into a reality show" addendum. "Teach" is set up a bit like ABC's " Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," in which the Naked Chef overhauled the cuisine of an American elementary school. The same doubts are expressed by administrators and students, the stars experience similar emotional breakdowns, early mistakes and setbacks are balanced by moments of triumph — except, of course, Oliver has expertise and Danza does not.

But what Danza does have is a great face, a situational humility — not only does he cry with alarming regularity, but he also often appears in early-morning close-up with his snore-strip still in place — and the genuine desire to excel. "Teach" is set at Philadelphia's Northeast High School, which is home to a magnet program in aerospace, engineering and medicine as well as an extensive and lauded music program. So "Teach" is not trying to chronicle the decay of city schools or to, heaven forbid, offer the possibility of celebrity teachers as a solution. In early episodes, the story is focused, sometimes maddeningly so, on Danza, on his fears and frustrations, his stunning realization that teaching is hard, that wanting to "reach" kids is not enough, and most important, that this job is not about him.

Obviously, the experience is contrived. Danza only has one class and the students have been specially selected. But for all his on-camera, eyes-brimming self-doubt, he goes into it with the cheerfully arrogant assumption that so many of us have: that if he engages the kids, he can teach the kids. Hilariously, one of the first things he learns is that he talks too much (one young man constructs intricate origami whenever Mr. Danza "goes off topic," which is often).

Danza has a classroom coach, and there's a take-no-prisoners assistant principal to serve as foil. But the humbling of the celebrity is not the storyline here either. Increasingly, the kids take over the show, proving that you don't have to be a "troubled" school to have troubles aplenty. The tensions and events that keep the kids from learning will resonate with anyone who has or has ever been a high school student.

And as Danza faces issues such as fighting, stealing, lying and cheating, he becomes less a celebrity drop-in and more an Everyman stand-in. For every parent, student or legislator who thinks they could do a better job in the classroom, Tony Danza is here to prove that good intentions are almost as cheap as talk and that some days teaching high school is enough to make a grown man cry.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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