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Checkmate, "The Paper Killer"

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

“Television’s over-representation of particular occupations may not be a distortion of reality, but may reflect the esteem given in our social value system to power… Television does not represent the manifest actuality of our society, but rather reflects, symbolically, the structure of values and relationships beneath the surface.”

Reading Television, John Fiske and John Hartley

When the Fox series 24 was at its height of popularity, and news was breaking about the U.S. military’s involvement with torturing prisoners, the editorial pages were filled with think-pieces about whether positive images of torture in prime-time were making Americans more tolerant of atrocities committed in our name. It’s a fair question: Does TV merely describe the underlying structure of the society that spawns it, or does it in influence that structure? I tend to believe that it’s arrogant to presume that people can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, so I prefer to err on the side of freedom of expression. But I do realize that the impulse to identify with the protagonist in a drama is a strong one. For instance, in the real world I feel that police intrusion into people’s lives should be minimal; but when I watch COPS, I often yell at the suspects to shut up and do whatever the officer tells them. Even though COPS documents incidents that actually happened, I react to the show as though it were Starsky & Hutch.

We go through cycles in this country of entertainment that expresses a deep distrust of the state’s authority (such as Three Days Of The Condor) and entertainment that hails those rugged public servants who kick ass in our name (such as Top Gun). The ’50s and early ’60s were largely a time of faith in government. During the chill of the Cold War, bookstores, cinemas, and TV schedules were flush with secret agents who wore suits and ties in broad daylight but carried hidden weapons and disguised their true motives. These men and women were generally depicted as heroes, even though their freedom-fighting happened away from the public oversight that’s supposed to be one of our nation’s core principles.

The novels of Eric Ambler toyed with the formula some by showing ordinary citizens stumbling into the world of espionage. But again, the implicit understanding was that some peacekeeping jobs just needed to be done, and that conventional military intervention and/or law enforcement wouldn’t be sufficient.

In 1960, Ambler created Checkmate, a CBS detective series that borrowed some of its ethos from spy novels. Whereas most detectives try to solve crimes that have already been committed, the men of the San Francisco-based Checkmate agency were hired to stop crimes before they happened. The earnest Don Corey (played by Anthony George), the hunky Jed Sills (Doug McClure), and the professorial Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot) would take cases where people felt like they were in danger, and would work to draw out and thwart potential villains. The show ran for two seasons and never became a big hit, though it was well-respected by critics and genre fans for the cleverness of its premise and the seriousness of its approach. (Checkmate even spawned a Gold Key comic book series, which ran for two issues in 1962.)

On March 25, 1961, Checkmate aired the episode “The Paper Killer,” directed by Don Taylor from a story by James Gunn and a script by Stuart Jerome. Mickey Rooney guest stars as a cartoonist named Steve Margate, creator of a popular adventure strip named O’Hara. When Dr. Hyatt first met Margate, decades ago, he was a painfully shy young artist. But in the wake of international success, Margate has become brittle, conceited and paranoid. He has a beautiful wife, Edna (Dianne Foster), but he’s convinced that she only married him for his money. He has a hard-working assistant, Andy Winston (played by William Schallert, the father on The Patty Duke Show), but Margate refuses to cede too much responsibility to an underling, lest his syndicate get any bright ideas about replacing him. While his doctors try to ward off nervous exhaustion with sleeping pills, Margate revs back up with pep pills and works long into the night, hatching a plan to kill off his swashbuckling main character once and for all and then retire.

But in his weakened mental state, Margate has begun to hallucinate that O’Hara is trying to kill him. The situation reaches a breaking point when Margate sees his creation lurking on the balcony of his hotel room, and looks down to find a letter-opener lodged in his arm. So Checkmate gets a call, both from Margate and his syndicate. The head of the syndicate thinks Margate needs to be committed to prevent him from killing himself—along with the multi-million-dollar business that is O’Hara. And Margate wants Checkmate to stop O’Hara, whom he’s convinced is real.

Corey and Sills start their investigation by trying to understand all they can about Margate’s business affairs, and whether he’d really be capable of killing off a character that millions of people love. (After all, as Corey notes, Arthur Conan Doyle dispatched Sherlock Holmes, then brought him back after the public clamored for it.)

Corey and Sills also try to get a better sense of Margate’s state of mind. They attend a cartoonists’ dinner where he’s being honored, and wonder if this public appearance is meant to be his last hurrah. (“The psychology of a ham,” Corey suggests. “Take one final bow, and then kill yourself.”) They watch part of one of Margate’s television interviews, though Corey switches it off when Margate starts explaining his mission in life. “Now we’ll never know,” Sills jokes. But actually they know Margate’s worldview fairly well, just from a few brief encounters. This cartoonist clearly projects his own weaknesses onto everyone he meets, calling them “mice,” not men. And he hates his macho hero O’Hara too, for being a reflection of his own mean-spirited arrogance. In a nutshell: The old man’s messed up.

In one phase of Checkmate’s plan, they coax Margate into confessing his self-loathing to his old friend Dr. Hyatt, who reminds Margate of when he was a much nicer man.

Then in another phase, they send Sills to investigate the strange possibility that O’Hara really is trying to kill Margate; not the fictional O’Hara, but someone dressed like the character. Sills speculates that someone in an O’Hara costume could’ve descended from the roof of the hotel to Margate’s balcony, and then returned to the roof using a special theatrical rigging. Some research into local rigging-suppliers leads to an actor named Niles Parker, a fading star looking to engineer a comeback by playing O’Hara in a TV series. By the time Checkmate finds Parker though, he’s been killed by whomever’s trying to drive Margate to the brink.

It doesn’t take long for the heroes to put the pieces together. First they get Margate to sketch the O’Hara that he saw on the balcony that night he was stabbed with the letter-opener… 

… and then they call all the suspects into the room, tell them everything they know about Niles Parker except that he’s been murdered, and have Sills surprise the assembly by appearing on a balcony in Parker’s O’Hara costume. As they expected, Margate’s assistant Andy Winston is the most shocked, insisting that Parker can’t be on the balcony because he’s already dead. (Checkmate suspected Winston because he’d been unconsciously drawing Parker’s face into the O’Hara strip for weeks.)

Thus everything is set right. Margate, realizing what obsession and ambition have wrought, sells the rights to O’Hara and vows to live out his days being a good husband to Edna. Checkmate shakes everybody’s hands and moves on to the next job.

But consider: What would’ve happened if Checkmate had never gotten involved in the first place? In the worst-case scenario, Margate might’ve ended up dead by his own hand, and Winston’s culpability might’ve been found out. In the best-case, Margate might’ve been committed, received treatment, and sold his strip anyway—perhaps to the long-suffering Winston—while a still-living Parker might’ve gotten that TV job as O’Hara. Either way, it’s likely that Checkmate’s intervention led indirectly to the death of Parker. And at the least, having Sills bounce around on the side of a hotel could’ve turned out much worse than it did. Was this really a job well done?

Of course, we’re not meant to question that. We’re meant to decode “The Paper Killer” much more simply, as a story about an agitator who’s been properly neutralized. To quote academic John Fiske in his book Television Culture: “In making sense of the program… we are maintaining and legitimating the dominant ideology, and our reward for this is the easy pleasure of the recognition of the familiar and its adequacy.” Fiske also has some pertinent things to say about the easy moral dynamic and structure of action-adventure shows in his book Reading Television (a collaboration with John Hartley), in which he co-writes, “Television violence too often disposes of really intractable sources of social tension, dislocation, or conflict with a neat, bloodless hole in the villain’s heart.” The violence in Checkmate is minor—just one non-fatal stabbing and off-screen murder—but it still cuts off any further contemplation of madness, intellectual property, and personal responsibility just by ascribing blame and sorting out where the characters rightly belong. We’re meant to be comforted by this episode, not provoked. 

The complication with “The Paper Killer” is that the episode’s plot and presentation inadvertently undercut its assertion of order. For one thing, it’s hard to root for Steve Margate to heal when Mickey Rooney’s performance is so off-putting. (About five minutes into the episode, I wanted him dead myself.) And then there’s the matter of Checkmate’s ambiguous assignment in “The Paper Killer.” They’re not just trying to prevent a man from killing himself—or being killed—they’re also trying to prevent a fictional character from dying, which may sound silly, except that the death of O’Hara would mean a significant loss of income for a number of people. The episode also keeps reminding the audience that we’re watching actors. The fake “O’Hara” is really an actor. And Edna Margate is a former actress. When Edna tells Corey and Sills that she knows she’s just a trophy wife who can be traded in for a new model, she adds, “Everyone’s playing a part.”

All of that is background for what’s easily the weirdest scene in “The Paper Killer,” in which Sills follows a lead to the Los Angeles office of Parker’s former agent. When we first see the agent, Bess Cadwallader (played by Betty Lou Gerson, the voice of Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians), she’s reading a terrible script and tells Sills to “Take a pew while I get another whiff of this oyster.” She assumes Sills is there to audition, so she inspects him like a piece of meat, while reassuring him that “Bess goes home with the cocoa and the cats,” which is her way of saying that she’s not so much into the fellas. Eventually, Sills stops playing along and hands her his card, to get down to his real business. But what gives this scene a lingering crackle is that in the dynamic of Checkmate, Doug McClure’s main purpose is to smile and look handsome, just as Ms. Cadwallader assumes. (And in case you Simpsons fans were wondering: Yes, Troy McClure was based in part on the Checkmate star.)

None of this, of course, was intended by the Checkmate creative team. They didn’t mean for viewers to start contemplating the artificiality of drama and whether there’s really such a thing as justice when it comes to fiction. On the other hand, what is intended by any given story of crime and punishment? Catharsis? Diversion? The satisfaction of solving a puzzle? Fiske comments on this too in Television Culture, noting that as a popular art form, television is designed to appeal broadly, and that part of that appeal comes from the way that different viewers can take different messages away. (In fact, TV’s popularity depends on its failure to “iron out and resolve the contradictions within society,” according to Fiske. If a show only reached the audience predisposed to approve of its message, it wouldn’t have much of an audience at all.)

I had a friend in college who watched the German thriller Das Boot with me, and at the end, he was happy to see the heroes die. “But… after all they went through…,” I started to protest. He cut me off with, “They’re Nazis. They’re the bad guys.” For him, it was just that simple. The creators of Das Boot meant their movie to evoke sympathy, but my friend steadfastly refused.

That just goes to show that no matter what’s been encoded in a piece of popular entertainment—intentionally or unintentionally—we’re free to take it however we like. The characters may play roles in rigid service of an expression of ideology, but we viewers have free will.

Next time, on A Very Special EpisodeSouth Park, “Cartoon Wars, Pts. 1 & 2”