Tuned In: Tony Danza goes back to school to be 'Teach'

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- A&E's docu-series "Teach" follows actor Tony Danza as he leads a 10th-grade English class for a full school year at a public Philadelphia high school, and the show addresses (and re-addresses) viewer skepticism at the outset.

Producers know viewers will be asking: Did Tony Danza, star of "Who's the Boss" and "Taxi," really teach those kids? Is this just a ploy that risks students' education to get a reality show on TV?

In tonight's premiere at 10, Mr. Danza questions whether he can pull off teaching, Northeast principal Linda Carroll threatens to pull the plug on the production ("If this doesn't work, you are out of here!"), an officious, obnoxious assistant principal right out of central casting lectures and patronizes Mr. Danza and students are the most critical of all.

"I'm very concerned about my education because he's not qualified to teach an English class," says Monte, the brainiac student in Mr. Danza's class.

Of course, as with all reality shows, it's reasonable to question how much of what viewers see in "Teach" is real and how much is constructed. After all, if the show began with Mr. Danza as a fantastic teacher, there would be no narrative trajectory. If he fails in the beginning, it gives the series somewhere to go as he improves over time.

The students and their comments, often filmed confessional style (presumably by the students themselves), come across as mostly genuine. Sometimes the kids show off in class -- one girl suggests Mr. Danza wear undershirts to better hide armpit stains from his nervous flop sweat -- but other times their criticisms seem like the unrehearsed, forthright voices of teenagers.

It's the students that make "Teach" a sometimes interesting show. They drive the story's forward momentum as much as Mr. Danza does and quickly emerge as his co-stars in a program that touches on teacher quality, student apathy and the plight of urban public schools.

"Teach" is well-edited and produced in a savvy enough way that it makes you want to believe what you're watching is real. Mr. Danza's sincerity helps. He may not be a good enough actor to fake the tears, enthusiasm and jovial attitude he brings to his life as a teacher. And his germophobe tendencies are just odd enough to be real.

Mr. Danza installs hand sanitizer dispensers near the door of his classroom and encourages his students to sanitize upon entering and exiting his class.

"Most teachers don't use sanitizer," notes one student. "I guess it comes with being an actor."

In the premiere, Mr. Danza talks at his students. And then talks some more. He also talks (and talks and talks) to the football team where he serves as an assistant coach.

"He likes to hear himself speak," says Chloe, one of his students. It's probably a natural impulse for an entertainer: An attempt to fill dead air. That clash of cultures makes "Teach" an intermittently fascinating show but because of everything we know (or suspect) about faked reality shows, it may be hard for discerning viewers to always take "Teach" at face value.

Making 'Teach'

Mr. Danza explains in the opening of the series that at one point in his life he contemplated becoming a teacher. For the purposes of a legitimate educational experience, he had to have an observer in the classroom, which is why "Teach" shows "instructional coach" David Cohn offering suggestions to Mr. Danza.

"He was in the classroom watching me all the time," Mr. Danza said in August at an A&E press conference during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. "There were times when I was totally lost."

Mr. Danza said unlike some other actors -- fellow '80s heartthrob Harry Hamlin ("L.A. Law") stars in the celebreality show "Harry Loves Lisa" on TV Land next Wednesday -- he did not agree to participate in "Teach" as a way to jumpstart a stalled career.

"I'm not interested in helping my career," he said. "But I will say to you that part of the impetus [is that I was] sitting around. I wasn't getting the offers. I'm almost 60 years old. I feel like I should be doing something. I've had a great life. My kids are grown. ... I feel like I should be trying to give something back. We have a terrible problem in this country. We have a 50 percent dropout rate in the inner city. That's not at Northeast. But we have a real problem, and it's unsustainable, I think. We have to address that. So yes, was there a part of 'I'm not working. Let's see what else I can do with myself,' Yes."

Mr. Danza said he was offered a Broadway role in "La Cage Aux Folles" that he had to turn down because the offer came during the year he filmed "Teach."

"I turned down that Kelsey Grammer part," he said. "It's been killing me ever since. Don't think it hasn't."

Mr. Danza said his goal is to put a spotlight on what it's like to be a first-year teacher and inspire future educators.

"I really was interested in trying to be a really good teacher that year and trying to make sure that the kids -- even though they signed up for this show, they didn't sign away their 10th grade English class. So it was very important that I did that."

In August Mr. Danza said he was undecided about whether he would return to teach another year at Northeast.

"You know, I have my own family that I think needs me," he said. "Sometimes I'm not sure, but I think they need me. So I've been wrestling with it."

An A&E publicist confirmed that Mr. Danza has not resumed teaching at Northeast.

Mourning 'Lone Star'

Fox's critically acclaimed "Lone Star" fared even worse in the Nielsen ratings this past Monday than it did in its premiere last week so Fox canceled the show Tuesday, replacing it with "Lie to Me" effective next week.

After "Lone Star" premiere's low ratings, cancellation did not come as a huge shock but it is a bitter pill for fans of quality TV to swallow.

TV shows get canceled every season, of course, but I can't remember the last time the fall's most critically acclaimed new show was first on the chopping block after just two episodes. It's possible to blame Fox for the show's failure on some level -- marketing, scheduling, etc. -- but the ratings were so bad it was clear broadcast network viewers simply had no interest in watching a basic cable-like series about a two-timing con man.

What will the failure of "Lone Star" mean for the immediate future? It probably means broadcasters won't attempt more basic cable-style shows anytime soon, and Fox, in particular will likely redouble its efforts to stay comfortably on brand in the series it develops for fall 2011.

If one was to guess the next new fall series to be sent packing, likely victims include low-rated "My Generation" or "The Whole Truth" on ABC, "Outlaw" on NBC and "Running Wilde" or "The Good Guys" on Fox.

PBS gets 'Dangerous'

The PBS documentary series "POV" ends its 23rd season next week with the premiere of the Academy Award-nominated film "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WQED).

The documentary looks at Mr. Ellsberg, a military planner, and his decision to leak 7,000 pages of top-secret documents to The New York Times in 1971. That may seem like ancient history to some, but in an era of WikiLeaks, this almost 40-year-old story has new resonance.

IFC signs 'Greg & Donny'

Johnstown-based Internet comedy show "Greg & Donny" went to the New York Television Festival last weekend and came away with a development deal with cable network IFC.

"Greg & Donny," viewable at GregandDonny.com, competed for attention at NYTF and found it using characters that speak with a Yinzer accent. The show won the IFC "Out of the Box" Award, which is given to the most "innovative, genre-expanding" pilot (re: offbeat). A past winner was IFC's "Food Party," which did become a weekly series.

But bear in mind, a development deal is just that: A deal to develop. It does not guarantee that a series will result from the agreement.

Still, the deal is a first step with potential for something more, and it's much further down the road than many homegrown TV pilots get.

Channel surfing

"Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" explores bullying -- kids who bully and who have been bullied converse -- at 9 p.m. Sunday on Nickelodeon. ... Fox has pushed the season two premiere of "Human Target" from tonight to Nov. 17. ... MTV is now airing a new, live daily pop culture show, "The Seven," at 5 p.m. weekdays. ... Lifetime has renewed "Army Wives" for a fifth season and "Drop Dead Diva" for a third. Both series will return with new episodes in 2011. ... USA Network has renewed "Royal Pains" and "White Collar" for their third seasons and "Psych" for a sixth season. ... "WWE Friday Night Smackdown" premieres tonight at 8 on Syfy. ... New seasons of A&E's "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Steven Seagal Lawman" premiere at 9 and 10 p.m., respectively, Wednesday. ... Syfy's "Ghost Hunters" stars Steve Gonsalves, Dave Tango, Kris Williams, Amy Bruni and Dustin Pari will visit Pittsburgh this weekend for a VIP event. For details and tickets visit Scarehouse.com/ghost-hunters.php. ... 1985 Hampton High School grad and Allison Park native Sean Pollock competes Tuesday on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (1:30 p.m. weekdays, WPXI).

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Flashpoint," "The Gates" and the revolving door at the WTAE weather center. This week Tuned In Journal includes posts on "American Dad," Ken Burns' "The Tenth Inning" and IFC's "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "Blue Bloods," "Dexter" and "Project Runway." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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