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Yo, Teach!

There’s an unsubstantiated rumor about Tony Danza always playing characters named “Tony” because he has a hard time responding to any other name on screen. While the charge surely reeks of apocrypha, it’s no surprise that it got some traction. From dim-witted boxer Tony on “Taxi” to dim-witted housekeeper Tony on “Who’s the Boss,” Danza’s characters aren’t exactly known for being intellectuals. He’s pretty much the television counterpoint to Kelsey Grammer, and that lovable-lunkhead-with-a-heart-of-gold persona has been the calling card of his career. The audience’s implicit understanding of Danza as a dull tack creates the core dramatic tension in his new reality show, “Teach.”

But “Teach” isn’t really a show about brains, and it’s not clear if Kelsey Grammer’s “Frasier” would fare any better than Danza did in his first week of teaching at an inner-city high school. For those of us who have never taken on the responsibility of educating 30-or-so wildly pubescent, cyber-addled kids, there is something to see here. So often when we talk about the public education system, the teachers’ union and No Child Left Behind, it’s easy to think of the players as stereotypes. “Teach” reminds us that the core of the educational system is the relationship that exists between teacher and student.

“Kids these days” has never been a valence-neutral phrase, and often public high school students are painted with the large brush of being lazy, apathetic and cruel. If nothing else, “Teach” debunks these stereotypes. Undoubtedly, there’s some editing-room magic going on here, but these kids come off as real individuals, and are, for the most part, shrewd, curious and discriminating. They understand reality shows (all were born well after MTV’s “The Real World” first hit the airwaves), and as a result they approach the enterprise with an appropriate dose of skepticism.

Danza stumbles through his first week with all the grace of a cab driver in a china shop. And while the cameras surely complicate the task of actually educating the kids, he mostly suffers in the same ways any other novice teacher might. He talks too much, tries too hard and sometimes finds himself not knowing enough about what he’s teaching. At one point, in a particularly cringe-inducing exchange, Danza gets shown up by a student who corrects him about the proper application of the “third-person omniscient.” There’s an irony there, of course, as the existence of the reality show genre itself is predicated on the absence of that viewpoint. But on another level, educating children isn’t about the almighty, all-knowing teacher preaching an absolute truth; rather, it’s about making connections between subjective individuals, each with their own problems, desires and prejudices.

It’s this glimpse at the under-examined relationship between teacher and student that makes “Teach” worth watching. And in that light, Danza’s goofball vulnerability is perfect for this kind of show because he does seem to care. He’s never been slick and polished, and that’s what makes him a good fit for a show about high-school. Although he cries, bumbles and sings throughout the hour to mostly indifferent, hair-twirling adolescent audiences, we somehow get the sense that there’s a real educator somewhere inside Tony. Excuse me, I mean Mr. Danza.

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