In HBO’s Gritty ‘Telemarketers,’ NJ Is Practically a Character

"Telemarketers" is told from the perspective of two unlikely heroes who dare to fight a system designed to grind down powerless, small-town guys like them.

Patrick J Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern
Patrick J. Pespas and Sam Lipman-Stern expose wrongdoing in the telemarketing industry in the HBO docuseries "Telemarketing." Photo courtesy of HBO

Telemarketers, the three-part HBO docuseries set in New Jersey about corruption in the telemarketing industry, is a rollercoaster ride of raucous humor and dark human pathos.

Released last month, it instantly resonated with anyone whose dinner was ever interrupted by a pushy phone salesman. Telemarketers exposes what’s happening behind the scenes, then goes much deeper, revealing who has masterminded this scourge—and who continues to protect it from accountability.

The series opens with grainy footage from a New Brunswick telemarketing office, Civic Development Group (CDG), in the early 2000s. The workers, a rough bunch of ex-convicts, drug addicts and otherwise unemployable delinquents, spend their days on the phone trying to convince people to donate to charities—talking with the precision and cheerful lawlessness of experienced criminals.

The team’s star salesman is Patrick J. Pespas, a surprisingly fun-loving heroin addict, filmed by a 14-year-old boy hired by CDG for his ability to imitate a “cop voice,” as many calls were for police-related charities.

CDG’s practices were questionable, to say the least. The company was eventually ordered by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 to pay an $18.8 million fine for misleading donors into thinking the majority of their donations were going to charity, when in actuality, only a small portion was.

Patrick J Pespas

Patrick J. Pespas was the star salesman at New Jersey-based telemarketing agency Civic Development Group. Photo courtesy of HBO

Over the course of several years, this teenager, Sam Lipman-Stern, documents the goings-on at the agency, slowly becoming submerged in the corrosive environment himself. In one memorable moment, Pespas leans unsteadily into the camera lens and laughs, “We call people up on behalf of some bullshit organization, and chisel ‘em out of money.” The turning point in the film comes when the duo discovers how deep the rot goes in the telemarketing industry: the police not only know about the scam, some of them may be in on it themselves.

In this documentary, New Jersey is such a prominent presence, it’s practically a character itself. Everything about the film, from the strong regional accents to the gritty streets of Plainfield, to the pan shots playfully captioned, “Somewhere in New Jersey,” makes the case that Telemarketers, for better or worse, is a story New Jersey can’t deny.

But Telemarketers is much more than local color. It’s a classic David and Goliath story, told from the perspective of two unlikely heroes who dare to fight a system designed to grind down powerless, small-town guys like them. Telemarketers is, deep down, a story about class struggle, how the rich and powerful prey on the downtrodden and the weak, and then force them to prey on each other. When Sam and Pat decide to blow the whistle on their industry, it’s about more than contrition. It’s an act of redemption.

Sam Lipman-Stern

Sam Lipman-Stern went from CDG to filmmaker. Photo courtesy of HBO

The film took 20 years to make. The throughline is Sam and Pat’s ongoing project to expose the telemarketing industry, and if possible, shut it down.

To this end, they encounter liars, cheaters, bureaucratic red tape and guys with guns. They endure one humiliation after another, as the audience watches them get older and more philosophical. Finally, at the end of the film, they find themselves in the hallowed halls of Congress. “We have arrived,” Pat says exuberantly. “We are at the halls of power.”

But in Telemarketers, everything is a twisty road, and what happens when they reach the top is no exception.

The series is streaming now on Max.

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