The one thing that unites all Americans is a hatred of telemarketers, and Sam Lipman-Stern and Adam Bhala Lough’s Telemarketers won’t win them any new admirers. Made over the course of 20 years, and initiated by Sam and his buddy Patrick J. Pespas when they worked together at New Jersey’s notorious telemarketing giant Civic Development Group (CDG), HBO’s three-part docuseries (Aug. 13) is a grungy first-person account of an outlaw profession, a damning exposé of a corrupt industry, and a heartening saga of friendship and redemption. Altogether, it’s a jaw-dropping ride through a Wild West of unhinged ex-cons, crooked cops, dishonest businessmen, and powerless bureaucrats—at once astonishing, infuriating, and touching.
Executive produced by Josh and Benny Safdie (no strangers to tri-state area griminess) and The Righteous Gemstones team of Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, Telemarketers exists only because of Sam, who in the early 2000s dropped out of the ninth grade so he could “hang out and paint graffiti and film me and my scumbag friends being little pieces of shit.” His parents balked at this and forced him to get a job, and the only place hiring 14-year-olds was CDG, whose ranks were comprised of various desperate and shady types, as well as outright criminals who’d been recruited at the local halfway house. Inspired by telemarketing pro Big Ed’s camcorder proclivities, Sam began recording his 9-to-5 experiences at the office, which was a carnivalesque free-for-all. When not endlessly goofing off, Sam’s colleagues drank, engaged with prostitutes, and did copious drugs, all out in the open and with reckless abandon—including Pat (described as a “telemarketing legend”), who’s seen on camera snorting heroin in Sam’s car and nodding off in his cubicle, and whom everyone says performed best when properly zonked.
Sam was no choirboy either, and in narration, he admits that he loved his time at CDG, as do many of his former coworkers. Comprising Sam’s old raggedy footage (which eventually made its way to YouTube), Telemarketers feels like a long-lost non-fiction cousin of the Safdie’s Good Time crossed with Office Space and American Movie. In its early going, the proceedings have a scuzzy electricity, with Sam capturing abundant office insanity, from Glengarry Glen Ross-style threats to violent confrontations to, of course, rampant call-center deception. More than merely a snapshot of this out-of-control milieu and its colorful inhabitants, however, the docuseries quickly assumes a more serious objective thanks to Sam’s realization that something suspicious is going on at CDG.
Originally, CDG solicited donations “on behalf of” cancer charities and state and local law enforcement unions like the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), who claimed to be raising money for good causes (say, officers injured in the line of duty), and who supposedly received 10 percent of everything that was collected. The other 90 percent went to CDG, while donors got stickers that many assumed would help get them out of tickets. Yet after becoming the No. 1 telemarketing outfit in America (with branches spread across the country), CDG changed not only its name (to the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police Fundraising Center) but also its literal script. Under this new guise, it instructed employees to declare that they worked directly for the FOP, and to admit that their organization was keeping 100 percent of donations.
Founded by the Pasch and Keezer brothers, CDG came under legal fire for this brazen fraud, but as conveyed by Telemarketers, trying to eliminate this practice is akin to a futile game of Whac-A-Mole; CDG, for example, was shut down and yet resurrected itself under a different moniker mere months later. Increasingly disgusted by the ugliness they helped perpetuate, Sam and Pat become motivated to reveal what’s really going on, at which point Telemarketers transforms into an amateur-journalist investigation, with the duo educating themselves on the nuts and bolts of these schemes, interviewing associates, and gathering evidence that might help put an end to this illicit enterprise. Before long, they’re speaking with individuals like “Jeff,” a Florida telemarketing bigwig with a cold-hearted ethos and an interest in having his identity concealed lest he court trouble. They also sit down with a remote-work telemarketer who spent 30 years in jail for murder and who, in front of them, makes scarily profane pronouncements about his call targets.
Telemarketers ultimately leaps forward in time thanks to Sam and Pat’s divergent paths, only to hit the ground running once they reunite after an eight-year separation to resume their sleuthing. At this stage, their attention shifts to the FOP unions that willingly get into bed with telemarketers. What they uncover, from a variety of angles, is a seemingly unavoidable truth: rather than victims of telemarketers, police unions are co-conspirators in this racket, lending their names to telemarketers in order to raise money from elderly and vulnerable citizens under false pretenses, and pocketing their shares of the bounty to spend on whatever luxuries (cruises! Social clubs! Golf trips! Limos!) they want. Sam and Pat’s outrage inspires a quest to prove that nationwide police organizations are in league with literal criminals to trick citizens out of their hard-earned cash—and that political action committees (PACs) are now also engaged in this con, and are encumbered by even fewer regulations than charities.
Telemarketers pulls the curtain back on this conspiracy, shining an unflattering light on those who pester you with annoying calls during dinner—some of whom, it turns out, are AI versions of dead former telemarketers! Sam and Pat’s mission takes them all the way to Washington, D.C., where they learn the true power of police unions. While their campaign doesn’t end in unmitigated triumph, the docuseries winds up being less about achieving a historic victory than about publicly unmasking telemarketer villainy. In that regard, it’s a success, as is its stirring portrait of friendship between two men who started at the bottom and found meaning and purpose in their efforts to atone for their sins by doing the right thing.
Moreover, in Pat, Telemarketers celebrates a charismatic crusader who reinvented himself through civic duty. He may not be the hero that America expected, but as evidenced by his committed attempts to bring the telemarketing juggernaut to its knees, he’s just the type we need.