Two misfits blow the whistle on the billion-dollar telemarketing industry

Two misfits blow the whistle on the billion-dollar telemarketing industry

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“I worked at CDG for seven years, and I never could’ve imagined I was part of the biggest telemarketing scam in American history… but Pat was onto it from the start. Pat was born to be a whistleblower,” says filmmaker Sam Lipman-Stern at the opening of Telemarketers, setting the scene for HBO’s remarkable new three-part docuseries.

What follows is the wild journey of two ne’er-do-wells who decide to take on a billion-dollar industry all the way to the halls of Washington DC, with their bong pipes ever handy.

Telemarketers to muckrakers: Pat Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern.Credit: HBO/Binge

Lipman-Stern was a 14-year-old high-school dropout in the early ’00s when he joined CDG (Civic Development Group), a call centre in New Jersey, where his job, and those of his co-workers, including his enigmatic buddy Pat Pespas – was to persuade people to donate to charities associated with police and firefighters unions.

It was, unsurprisingly, a scam. In 2010, CDG was hit with a record civil fine by the US’s Federal Trade Commission and its owners banned from telemarketing for life. Not that the money-hungry chicanery stopped there, as Lipman-Stern and Pespas soon uncovered, initiating their deep-dive into the “dark side of American capitalism”.

You wouldn’t imagine a docuseries about a telemarketing scandal could rouse the senses, but here we are. The series’ greatest strength is its intimacy. Stretching back 20 years, Telemarketers plays like both political thriller and buddy comedy, fuelled by camcorder footage Lipman-Stern shot from the beginning just for YouTube kicks.

The series’ heart and soul is “telemarketing legend” Pat Pespas.Credit: HBO/Binge

Shot on grainy video (you can tell why the Safdie brothers, executive producers on the series, were aesthetically attracted to the material), the early call centre scenes play like The Office if The Office was real and seedy and populated by drug addicts and ex-cons.

The CDG bunch are a rabble of misfits, hard on their luck and short of opportunity: they can’t get jobs elsewhere by virtue of their criminal records. Such is the stacked system of rehabilitation, where petty crime gets you a life sentence in telemarketing and white-collar crookedness a mere slap on the wrist.

Despite their work (robbing old ladies of cash, for the benefit of their bosses’ Christian rock star dreams), Lipman-Stern’s insider perspective grants his co-workers sympathy.

Among the group is “telemarketing legend” Pespas, the kind of unforgettable character that great documentaries unearth once in a blue moon (think Mike Schank in 1999’s American Movie, Lips from 2008’s Anvil). In a Hollywood remake, he’d be played by Zach Galifianakis or Paul Walter Hauser at his ditziest. It’s only a matter of time till Pat’s face graces t-shirts, believe me.

Although our introduction to Pat is watching him perennially nodding off on the job (in one incredible scene, he snorts heroin on his lunchbreak then excitedly ventures back into the call centre to complete a $95 sale), he’s a guru of sorts to Lipman-Stern, sweet and cynical and streetwise and alert to the absurdity of his existence. “They want people like me at CDG,” he says of his employers, through sardonic resignation. “This way they could pull all the shady crap and they figure you won’t do anything about it because you’re doing shady crap to begin with.”

Beyond the greed, the subterfuge, the thrilling expose of a corrupt industry and the reach of its grimy tentacles (especially in a US where the polemic divide between “defund the police” and “#BlueLivesMatter” is easily exploited), the show’s life-affirming, emotional heft lies in Pat’s decent struggle for spiritual redemption. Telemarketers is really a gritty hero’s quest in the guise of a telemarketing take down. When Sam plays an old phone message of Pat saying, “We’ve gotta take them down from the inside!,” you want the pair, as unlikely as it seems, to win.

As we progress, their play-acting as muckrakers becomes as invigorating as it is inept. In a hilarious recurring bit, delivered whenever they’re suddenly railroaded by an intended target, they evoke the spirit of Michael Moore, documentary’s patron saint of righteous ambushes. “We’re getting this interview… Michael Moore-style!” Pat exclaims before a tense meeting with chiefs from the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police). Just wait and see how it goes.

For all its eye-opening focus on the shady intricacies of the telemarketing industry (already supersized by AI), the series is also a galvanising piece of gonzo agitprop. Let the battle against the bastards, in all their forms (even Christian rockers), ever continue. And please: Pat Pespas for president in 2024.

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