The down-and-dirty Jersey sleaze of the HBO documentary series ‘Telemarketers’
Telemarketers, the new three-part docuseries, deep dives into the seedy underbelly of telemarketing. Specifically, co-director Sam Lipman-Stern chronicles his experiences at a shady but very lucrative Jersey outfit called Civic Development Group, commonly referred to as CDG. One former employee jokes that this is an acronym for “Criminals Doing Good.”
If you’re sold on prestige period pieces with fancy accents and insane costume budgets, you probably won’t be drawn to the raw, down-and-dirty Telemarketers. That’s a mistake. Telemarketers is dark, disturbing, as well as funny and heartwarming. And two episodes in, it’s the best thing out there. Yes, I’m high on this series, but that’s fitting. More than a few of the subjects appear drugged-out on camera.
Lipman-Stern is the Henry Hill of telemarketers. In the series’ opening moments, a disheveled Lipman-Stern sets the tone with this terrific whine, “I was just sitting here feeling like fuckin’ shit…. I want to make a documentary about CDG. I’ve been thinking about it since I was a fuckin’ little kid.”
After Lipman-Stern dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, his parents forced him to get a job. CDG was the only place that would take him. At CDG, he and his $10-an-hour colleagues (no commission) call people and ask for donations to charitable organizations, mostly law enforcement groups. The telemarketers often adapt the voice of a stereotypical law enforcement person – and offer stickers, which may or may not help one get out of a traffic violation. Here’s the scam: Only a small portion of the money raised goes to charity. Almost all goes to CDG, which is allowed to exist for years by finding loopholes in the law.
Lipman-Stern has a love-hate relationship with CDG. He seems to have genuine affection for many of his co-workers, a motley crew of unemployable misfits, many of whom have done time. At CDG, this seems to be a plus. CDG’s rationale: Sketchy people will not have a problem doing sketchy deeds. The annoying Richie from The Bear would be considered soft in this tawdry territory.
Eventually, Lipman-Stern starts filming the anything-goes antics at CDG. The company allows him to do so because it essentially allows employees to do just about anything at CDG – drugs, alcohol, pro wrestling maneuvers, chair racing, sex –as long as you’re meeting your quota. At some point, a veteran, very lovable telemarketer by the name of Patrick J. Pespas jumps on Lipman-Stern’s nascent documentary bandwagon. Pat, an endearing man with a heroin habit, wants the documentary to pivot from Beavis and Butt-Head territory to Michael Moore. In short, Pat wants to take down the entire telemarketing industry. Pat looks absolutely gleeful speaking to the camera as if he’s Mike Wallace on an investigative mission. Indeed, there’s plenty to investigate. CDG is becoming more brazen, as well as greedy.
With Pat on board, the documentarians widen their scope and start interviewing watchdog groups, a very blunt and scary telemarketing executive and a few telemarketers with compelling stories. They also turn their attention to the non-profits who are utilizing telemarketing as a fundraising tool. It’s all riveting material.