To Tony, with love. That’s the rough concept underlying “Teach,” which features Tony Danza (who also helped develop the concept) taking a job teaching high school in Philadelphia. There are tears and self-doubts aplenty — and that’s just from Danza during the first few episodes as he teaches English and helps out with the football team. Danza’s explanation is that he always wanted to be teacher and to alter public perception about education; A&E’s more pragmatic rationale is doubtless that casting celebrities in reality TV is a proven lesson-plan for doing dramedy on the cheap.
To its credit, the show allows the students — many of whom aren’t familiar with the “Who’s the Boss?” star — to question his motives and what he’s doing moonlighting for a year at Northeast High. “Are you a millionaire?” one of them asks, provoking a rather sheepish reply. The kids express their qualms in direct-to-camera confessionals, as does Danza, who becomes emotional early and often — when he isn’t uncomfortably prodding the kids to use hand sanitizer.
“I don’t know if I’m up to this,” he confesses near the outset.
But it’s hard to figure out exactly what “this” is. Exalting the sacrifices that teachers make — for mediocre pay, often under inhospitable conditions — is hardly new. And Danza’s frequent references to his humble origins — having grown up a garbage man’s son — sound forced, and a little defensive. Whatever his self-made roots, his success in sitcoms has made him a wealthy celebrity, unless Sony’s lawyers drafted an especially iron-clad “We keep all the syndication money” contract on “Who’s the Boss?”
What’s left, then, is Danza playing (and there’s really the operative word) at being a teacher, with the show employing the customary musical cues and editing tricks to try to generate suspense about whether he can actually teach the kids to appreciate “Of Mice and Men.”
In short, there are alternatives in drawing attention to the plight of teachers that don’t involve a seven-episode order, but where’s the fun in that? And while you can take on faith Danza’s claims about wanting to do good and give back, he’s still dabbling in an avocation others call a career.
“Teach” thus becomes another one of those strained unscripted exercises that demand a serious suspension of disbelief. Admittedly, there’s an audience for that — one willing to sit wide-eyed and say, “Tony, tell me about the rabbits.”