Teach: Tony Danza

Being a first year teacher is intense. Every day is a battle, a struggle, a war with the forces of apathy and institutional and personal inertia. It takes everything out of you. Hell, being the partner of a first year teacher is intense; there have been times throughout my girlfriend’s first year as a teacher when I have felt like a professional widower.

So it’s been surreal watching my girlfriend’s professional struggles reflected in the tumultuous journey of a former Who’s The Boss star on an A&E reality show. When it was announced that Tony Danza would be going to back to school as a teacher for a reality show, people were rightfully skeptical. Like all reality shows involving celebrities, it had the distinct stench of a cheap publicity stunt from an actor whose glory days came and went decades ago.

Danza may have been going into the project with the best of intentions, but viewers could be forgiven for dismissing the show as a silly vanity project. Thankfully, Teach: Tony Danza, has soared past the very low expectations greeting a project involving the star of She’s Out of Control to become a tough, insightful, and compelling exploration of fame, celebrity, performance, and the art of teaching.

I suspect that much of the show’s audience consists of teachers. I’ve noticed that teachers are disproportionately represented here, so what did you teachers think of the show? What did you think of Danza as a teacher?

Public speaking traditionally trumps death as society’s greatest fear, so it takes guts to get up in front of belligerent teenagers (the only kind) for eight hours a day and try to fill their television-addled minds with wisdom.

Teaching is performing, and in his first days as a teacher in an eclectic Philadelphia High School, Danza makes the mistake of trying to charm his students, as if they were an audience in Las Vegas instead of teenagers. He’s a shameless ham, a natural performer who’s always on.

Danza learns early on that his fame means almost nothing within the context of his new job. The students have only the fuzziest notion of Danza’s past celebrity; none of them were born when Taxi was on the air, and Who’s The Boss isn’t exactly the young people’s favorite these days. To them, Danza isn’t a celebrity or a famous TV star: He’s a silly, self-absorbed old man with graying hair and reading glasses who is hopelessly infatuated with the sound of his own voice.

He’s still a handsome man. There’s a reason Danza was a major sex symbol in the seventies and eighties, but today, he has the bowlegged, broken-down gait of the second-rate boxer he once was. Danza’s students don’t admire him so much as they pity him.

The kids here are a fascinating combination of naiveté and deceptive savvy, cockiness and poignant awkwardness; they’re canny judges of character and see right through his attempts to entertain his way into their hearts. Like dogs, they can sense fear, and Danza’s affability can’t mask that he’s scared on a pretty profound level and rightfully so.

Danza’s principal, mentor, and fellow faculty aren’t any easier on him than his students. They view him with rightful suspicion. Many seem to feel ambivalent at best about being part of a reality show; they take their jobs too seriously to feel comfortable making their life’s work background business for a has-been’s attempt to recreate himself as an inspirational educator.

Over the course of the show’s first and possibly last season, which ended last night, Danza endured countless blows to his actor’s ego as he discovered that the classroom isn’t about him. It’s not about the teacher, it’s about the students. Teach has been bold in illustrating just how badly Danza has screwed up. He’s been wrong. He’s contradicted himself. He’s shown poor classroom management skills and questionable judgment.

Danza has broken down. He’s cried. He’s doubted himself and his fitness to teach. He’s done what every first year teacher does, whether they’re a millionaire like Danza or a 21-year-old fresh out of college. True, there have been quiet moments of triumph and connection along the way, where Danza has gotten through to a recalcitrant student or scored a minor victory, but for the most part, it’s been a brutal battle every day.

The show’s title has a rather obvious but apt double meaning; the students seem to spend as much time teaching Danza how to be a teacher as he does teaching them English. In the anti-climactic season finale, one of Danza’s students, a cute, flighty girl, accuses Danza of picking on her and singling her out and Danza stages a show unfortunately but inevitably titled “Extravadanza” to raise money for the school and buy a new air conditioner.

It was such a strangely low-key way to end a season that I wondered if I’d gotten the episodes wrong and the finale will be next week, but its humble scope perfectly matched the show’s depiction of teaching as an endless struggle largely devoid of the kind of big dramatic flourishes that define the inspirational teacher subgenre.

For Teach, it’s not about jumping on desks or seizing the day or being serenaded by guitar-toting students with “To Sir, With Love”: it’s about trying as hard you can, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, and hoping that your best will be good enough.

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