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Ellen Gray: Tony Danza & 'Teach': On a learning curve

TEACH: TONY DANZA. 6 and 10:01 p.m. tomorrow, A&E. THERE ARE lessons to be learned from A&E's "Teach: Tony Danza," though I'm not yet sure how many of them will involve 10th-grade English.

TEACH: TONY DANZA. 6 and 10:01 p.m. tomorrow, A&E.

THERE ARE lessons to be learned from A&E's "Teach: Tony Danza," though I'm not yet sure how many of them will involve 10th-grade English.

That's the class the actor and former talk-show host signed up to teach last year at Philadelphia's Northeast High as part of a "reality" series to air on the channel that made "Dog the Bounty Hunter" a star and shone a spotlight on some of the city's most feared employees in "Parking Wars."

Starting tomorrow with the premiere of the seven-episode "Teach," we can see the now 59-year-old Danza, who long ago studied to be a teacher but went into boxing and then show business instead, struggling with the same issues any new teacher faces, as well as a few most don't.

Starting with skepticism about his motives.

Turns out Danza, who lived in Northern Liberties for the year, read the Daily News, at least the issue in which columnist Ronnie Polaneczky weighed in on the idea of allowing Danza and the cameras access to students.

Nearly a month later, he was still feeling stung, telling some of his new colleagues, "It's like somebody in the paper said, I'd be pimping Philadelphia's kids to kick-start my career."

If this were a reading-comprehension test, I'd have to give Danza no better than a C, since what Ronnie wrote was that it was the School Reform Commission that would be deciding whether "to pimp our kids' education to an unemployed sitcom actor who wants to kick-start his stalled career on the backs of students who'll be distracted by cameras and microphones."

But while I, too, had and continue to have doubts about the experiment - or about any unscripted show that puts minors on camera - I found the first hour of "Teach" to be surprisingly responsible. Maybe even a little bit educational.

Those, of course, might be the two worst things anyone could say about a "reality" show. (Do you think I could kill "Jersey Shore" if I told people Snooki was secretly a substance-abuse specialist trying to educate the public about the dangers of binge drinking?)

I did laugh, though, at scene in "Teach" in which the school's assistant principal takes Danza to the woodshed over his failure to sign in properly on his first day.

And I do buy the guy's sincerity. Not because he gets tearful in tomorrow's premiere. "I'm scared," he confesses. "I mean, would I want my daughter in my class? That's what I'm thinking. These parents and these kids have the same expectations that I have for my kids."

What convinced me was what Northeast principal Linda Carroll told me this summer: that the cameras were gone in April, but that Danza was still in the classroom in May and June.

So much of what we see on unscripted TV is either staged or edited to tell a story that may or may not be the story that it's easy to forget reality is often what happens when there's no one filming.

Danza learns quickly that to his students, he isn't so much a has-been as a nonentity.

One guesses the ex- "Taxi" star was "a famous taxi driver."

"He sweats a lot," observes another.

"He talks a lot," says a third, who's not kidding.

Danza talks so much in the first episode - about everything from hand sanitizer to nervousness - that it's hard to imagine he'll ever find the time to teach.

He recognizes the problem, telling a friend, "I can make them laugh, but can I make them learn? . . . At the end of the semester, there has to have been some learning."

He's right, which is why for now "Teach: Tony Danza" has to settle for an Incomplete.

'Wallander' returns

PBS' "Masterpiece" launches its 40th season Sunday (9 p.m., Channel 12) with the return of Kenneth Branagh as depressed and diabetic Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in "Faceless Killers," the first of three new episodes based on the novels of Henning Mankell.

I was so dazzled by the northern light in the first "Wallander" series that I failed to notice the role sound plays in setting a chilling mood that's the antithesis of the English "cozies" on which "Mystery!" cut its teeth.

Swedish mystery's all the rage, of course, thanks to the late Stieg Larsson's "Girl" trilogy.

I asked Branagh during a PBS press conference last month what sets the genre apart.

"The landscape is different," he replied. "The feeling that the activities, the murder, the violence is isolated, that somewhere - to be poetic about it, that somewhere in the north there are clearer skies, fewer people . . . [an] atmosphere which the Swedes themselves are happy to accept as poetic and mysterious, in which these things can be considered."*

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