HBO’s ‘Telemarketers’ and the Dirtbag Folk Heroes We Need

The earnest yet chaotic documentary about telemarketing scams and official complicity doesn't break any new journalistic ground, but tells a hell of a story through an unlikely lens.

“What the heck am I watching?” That was the first thing that came to mind when the first episode of the three-part HBO docu-series Telemarketers started playing. It was late, and I was looking for something mindless to kill an hour before bed. The description said it was about “two unlikely office buddies, who stumble upon the truth behind the work they’ve been doing at a seedy call center,” so I was expecting the kind of slickly produced show about a scam that has become all the rage on the streamers. You know, the kind helmed by polished producers with well-lit interviewees speaking to high-res cameras on nice-looking sets.

Instead, I was treated to shaky low-res footage of the most chaotic office in the world, shot by a teenager intending to chuck his colleagues’ antics onto YouTube for the lolz. There were a few interviewees in what looked like their own living rooms talking about their wild days at Civic Development Group, a call center that hired anyone with a pulse who could read a script and convince folks to donate a few bucks to various law enforcement-adjacent charities. And of those bucks, only about 10% went to said charities while the rest funded the lavish lifestyles of the telemarketing company’s founders. As the show progresses into the next episode, it unveils how the telemarketers used sketchy tactics to squeeze money out of well-meaning people, including impersonating officers.

Most of this is old news — literally. The docu-series shows decades-old footage from news programs exclaiming about the scam and flashes articles written by an investigative journalist outlining how the hustle has evolved. The crew seeks interviews with politicians and such going, “Why isn’t anything being done about this?” only to get collective shrugs in response. So other than giving insight into just how chaotic those offices were — people openly doing drugs, pulling pranks, and passing out at their desks — Telemarketers doesn’t really give us any new information, or take any groundbreaking action that might lead to real change.

And yet it is irresistibly compelling thanks to its unlikely heroes: Pat J. Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern, two former telemarketers who met during their dirtbag days at Civic Development Group, where Pat was one of the top salesmen despite (or possibly because of) his open drug habit, and Sam was a high school dropout working for the only place that would hire a 14-year-old. Over the next several years, the two set out to create a Michael Moore-style documentary about the nonsense they witnessed and were involved in at work. And that’s the real story — how their efforts would start and stall and restart and re-stall, with Pat as the interviewer and Sam as the cameraman.

Pat Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern in Telemarketrs
Pat J. Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern

Pat is pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect of a documentarian. He often talks over his interviewees, his questions aren’t particularly well researched or sharply worded, and at one point he gets the name of someone he’s trying to interview wrong. As for Sam — he just follows with the camera and lets Pat be Pat. There are no fancy credentials… at one point Pat is delighted to call himself a “freelance journalist,” a title he never thought to bestow upon himself. It’s something of a mir4cle that the docu-series was finished at all, let alone distributed on a big platform like HBO. How did that happen? A moment of kismet — turns out, Sam is related to filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough, who saw the project’s potential.

The result of this amateur, often chaotic venture is an earnest and often frustrating depiction of two ordinary guys who can’t believe that something so obviously wrong has been allowed to continue for so long and want to expose it, yet don’t have the clout to take on The Powers That Be. In a way, they represent everyone who’s ever ranted over dinner about how “this is so wrong!” and “if I were running the world, I would totally fix that!” And their stymied efforts illustrate just how helpless all of us are to go up against the enormously wealthy and incredibly influential.

Yet they try anyway, and it’s that story-behind-the-story that makes Telemarketers a worthwhile watch.

4.5/5 stars

Mary Fan
Mary Fan
Mary Fan is a Jersey City-based author of sci-fi/fantasy. Her books include Stronger than a Bronze Dragon, the Starswept Trilogy, the Jane Colt Trilogy, the Flynn Nightsider series, and the Fated Stars series. She is also the co-editor of the Brave New Girls sci-fi anthologies about girls in STEM.

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A review of HBO's documentary series TelemarketersHBO's 'Telemarketers' and the Dirtbag Folk Heroes We Need