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Revamped The National is a harebrained muddle

Here's an odd and ironic thing. When I recorded CBC's The National this week on my PVR, the on-screen icon for the recording was a photo of Peter Mansbridge.

Somebody at CBC should do something about that. This is not Mansbridge's The National. In fact I don't know what it is. Nor does CBC, one suspects. The revamped newscast is not a newscast as a newscast is known to you and me. It's a chatty, visually bewildering assessment of some news stories of the day. That's not the news, per se. It's a not even a summary of what happened. It's a lot of "sharing" and a lot of "voices" being heard and it is chatty, chatty, chatty.

Some of them, those voices, are off the wall, literally. With four hosts, Adrienne Arsenault, Rosemary Barton, Andrew Chang and Ian Hanomansing, and not all in the same studio, their faces loom on the wall and talk at us.

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Outside of this bizarre format, these are superb journalists. Barton is excellent in political interviews. Hanomansing is a superb news announcer. Arsenault is a great TV reporter and Chang is a lively, personable TV news guy. But nobody's strength is being used in this hallucinogenic, harebrained version of a newscast.

Maybe it's some kind of homage to Max Headroom. A few of you will remember Max Headroom, an artificial intelligence TV character from the 1980s. In a nutshell, Max was a head-and-shoulders TV figure that floated around the screen, disconnected from the studio and from reality. Eerily and uncannily just there, floating. That's your four hosts of The National now. Regrettably, the gimmick makes them all look like Pez dispenser heads.

Seriously. It's perfectly possible some CBC honcho got high, saw this ad for personalized Pez dispenser heads (they're surprisingly affordable) and had a eureka moment. Wouldn't be surprised. This news program is so high it's on the moon.

Monday's kick-off was about serious news stories, but in a cockamamie way. A top item was the church shooting in Texas. Hanomansing chatted with reporter Paul Hunter, who was on the scene. It was intense. Man, was it intense. Hunter was encouraged – nay, commanded – to let his feelings flow. He got emotional, as he was supposed to do. Yes, he had covered the horrific school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. It had made him weep, as it would anyone with a soul.

This, however, was not Newtown and what viewers saw was a reporter, skilled at doing traditional TV reportage, suddenly doing deep feelings and expected to be personally raw. That, with respect, is what the Dr. Phil show is for – exposed feelings and some kind of half-baked social context.

As segment followed segment, the truth dawned – if you want the news, go somewhere else. Here, on this program, you get your good buddies from CBC News going all, "Dude, you know what's weird …?"

Arsenault did a lengthy first-rate report about Raqqa, rescued but ruined after ISL occupation. For the viewer, it was like some ghostly figure – possibly one of those eerie heads on the wall – had changed the channel and suddenly it was Frontline on PBS. But, no, it wasn't. Barton came on and had a few wink-and-a-nudge things to say about Valérie Plante being elected mayor of Montreal. It was a "Well, there you go, eh?" moment. The whole thing is one "There you go, eh?" moment after another.

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Tuesday brought "The Red Chair" in to this harebrained muddle. They put a red chair somewhere and invite people to sit in it and tell truths about issues of the day. The chair itself is like a tiny version of the big red chairs they used to have on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. Like, the new, cool version of those big red chairs you might dream up, if you were totally high.

Anyway, people sat in the chair and talked about sexual harassment. It was not clear if the people on the red chair were regular folks expressing feelings, or actors. One was definitely an actor. Barton told us the red chair would be going hither and thither across Canada. The old Barton of Power & Politics would have demanded to know why the darn chair was Liberal red. But those days are long gone.

Meanwhile, over on CTV National News with Lisa LaFlamme, which one is obliged to watch to get a news summary, that same night, there was a helluva story. Yep, there was a cogent summary of the news of the day and then LaFlamme announced a coming scoop about a bunch of people arrested in Alberta, "buck naked," after a car chase. She actually said "buck naked," although the story was terribly, terribly unclear about nakedness, the car chase and what was going on.

Thank heavens the story wasn't on the radar of the "There you go, eh?" people on CBC – it would have called for an entire hour of clucking, chatting and raw emotion. The mind boggles.

On Thursday came the legendary At Issue panel. They sat around a table that appears to have a holy water font in the middle, big enough for Pastor Mansbridge to do baptismal ceremonies. Andrew Coyne, Chantal Hébert and Josh Wingrove, who was once part of the Globe parish, talked to Barton about stuff and reached stern conclusions. Barton looked wildly relieved to be in her usual territory.

No wonder. In all seriousness, the revamped The National, in its first few outings, is disjointed, surreal and sadly lacking in coherence. It makes no sense. Come back Pastor Mansbridge, all is totally forgiven.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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