Cop widows and cancer survivors, paralyzed veterans and retired firemen, dying children’s wishes and “brave police under siege”: In Telemarketers, nearly all the organizations for which boiler rooms of callers raised millions of dollars in donations were either mostly deceitful or totally fake, “nonprofits” exaggerating their needs and pocketing the money. Anyone can fill out the paperwork to be a 501(c)(3) and start scamming people, and over its raucous, rough-around-the-edges, and compulsively watchable three episodes, Telemarketers explains the ease of that fraud via the people who were hired to enact the scheme. But anyone can also pick up a camera and ask questions, and Telemarketers uses its own scrappy employ of those methods to equalize the world of investigation as much as it reveals the corruption of the industry that inspired it.
Directed by Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern, Telemarketers (airing on HBO Sunday nights through August 27) follows Lipman-Stern and his close friend and former colleague Patrick J. Pespas as they team up to investigate their one-time employer, the telemarketing company Civic Development Group. Were the nonprofits CDG had them calling for legitimate, and were the tactics CDG instructed them to use ethical? Telemarketers begins with those queries, which are complemented by Lipman-Stern’s contemporaneous footage, produced when he was recording everything going down in CDG’s sprawling mass of cubicles in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It was a big, dysfunctional family,” is how one of his co-workers describes their team, and the first episode of Telemarketers operates like a rapidly paced crash course on how Lipman-Stern, Pespas, and the other CDG employees ended up in this place, calling dozens of people to reach the daily $200 donation minimum.
Initially, Lipman-Stern’s camera — which he got in order to “film me and my scumbag friends being little pieces of shit” — is always running because the ninth-grade dropout wanted to document all the pranks, goofiness, and illegality going on at CDG, the only job he could get. Pespas doing heroin at work and then successfully closing a call is as disquieting as it is impressive; people drinking and smoking, flirting and dealing drugs, and giving each other stick-and-poke tattoos are all on-the-clock activities. It’s all very Workaholics, with co-workers who have nowhere else to go forming tight relationships through a shared grind and a common jadedness. (It makes complete sense that Telemarketers is produced by the Safdie brothers, whose Uncut Gems proved their sense for larger-than-life characters, and Rough House Pictures, which has made its name crafting stories about little-seen corners of America.) CDG didn’t care what you did as long as you raised money, as Lipman-Stern, Pespas, and other former employees explain in footage from the early 2000s and recently conducted talking-head interviews, and that laissez-faire attitude is eventually what inspires Lipman-Stern and Pespas to look more critically at what they were doing, and who they were doing it for. “We gotta take ’em down from the inside,” they decide, and that declaration becomes a guiding motivation as they try to unravel CDG’s business practices — and realize that the company’s strongest, most potentially dangerous allies are the police.
Telemarketers arrives at a time when workers around the country are unionizing or striking, from writers and actors in New York City and Los Angeles to food-service workers in Las Vegas and nurses in New Jersey. So the docuseries’ villainous portrayal of police unions is, read reductively, an against-the-tide move. But it’s also a needed one, a lens on the disproportionate amount of power and influence groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Union of Police Associations wield, and a reminder that their untouchability is highly atypical: No other workers in this country get the same reflexive respect and intrinsic benefit of the doubt. Lipman-Stern drives that point home through interviews with an anonymous telemarketing executive who talks about scamming $82,000 from one donor who drained his retirement account to support what he thought was a public good and emails from police unions urging telemarketing companies to use years-old stories of officers killed on the job to ramp up donations.
Telemarketers digs into that grittier stuff in its second and third episodes, once Lipman-Stern and Pespas move on from CDG and, through a network of sources and some vigorous internet research, start piecing together how the industry works — or doesn’t. The series pairs their fish-out-of-water vibe with some structurally smart choices to keep us immersed even as Lipman-Stern hits various dead ends, including its use of episodic cliffhangers, the way it integrates Lipman-Stern’s narration and exposition, and its centering of the hyperearnest Pespas, who has a wonderfully prescient anti–George W. Bush rant in an early clip. Its most effective move is tracking how the filmmakers go from bewildered and baffled as they start poking around CDG to willful, fervid, and just a little bit paranoid as they realize the Goliath they’re staring down. At the same time, Telemarketers isn’t always what we would think of as “professional.” Pespas is an uneven interviewer, and he’s sometimes so excited about being the main front-of-camera person that he forgets he’s not the entire story; Lipman-Stern’s father has to remind him about public-information laws and walk him through how to access some of the nonprofits’ legal documents.
But those little stumbles raise all kinds of meta questions about what we want from documentaries in the first place: Do we want rawness and personal investment, or slickness and journalistic detachment? Which approach, subjectivity or objectivity, makes for a more engrossing and meaningful final product? Telemarketers lets those questions about form and function become more explicit, and vital, as the series approaches an ending that feels relatively abrupt following such absurd money-making plots and such unbelievable characters (including a convicted murderer who, after failing to secure donations, quite frighteningly describes elaborate ways he hopes those people die). Before then, however, Telemarketers takes to heart an old journalism mantra about there being value in people documenting what they see and experience every day in order to understand it, and an idea shared with filmmaker James Cameron — that picking up a camera and shooting the world around you isn’t some rarified act. “They’re keeping tabs on you, America!” Pespas says in the early-aughts footage, and Telemarketers leaves us with the directive that we should be keeping tabs on the America around us, too.