Telemarketers, in general, are the subject of HBO’s scandalous new limited series, which uses a notorious scam by a defunct fundraising organization in New Jersey as a springboard to explore the fraudulent practices of the entire industry. However, the title of this three-part documentary could also refer to two telemarketers in particular: a pair of call center employees who have spent two decades, on and off the home, researching their shady employers, and discovering how fraud they were participating in. It was just the tip of the iceberg. This insider angle of action cleverly sets the series apart from any number of impersonal shows. Whether corruption finders are as interesting as the slime they collect is another matter.
One of the documentary filmmakers, Sam Lippman Stern, was just 14 when he started working for the Civic Development Group, and would spend his days calling strangers to collect donations for police and firefighting organizations. His co-workers were fellow teenagers, ex-convicts, and generally desperate people, all working for minimum wage because the job required no background check. (You can also drink, party, and sell your own goods around the clock.) Lippman Stern has more than just his memories of the place he wants to share. And his access extends to the hours of footage he shot inside a Jersey call center – a treasure trove of home movies that depict CDG as a low-paying kind. Stratton Oakmontwhere drugs and alcohol flowed as freely as the lies used by the sales callers.
It was clear that the center was a haven for dignitaries, some of whom were nostalgic in their interviews with the dignitaries. (These antics, along with the irritating, chaotic mess of the home video footage, are presumably what drew executive producers the Safdie brothers and Danny McBride to the project.) Telemarketers find a key figure, in several senses of the word, in Patrick Bispas, a talkative goof. His heroin addiction wasn’t a hindrance to his ability to convince almost anyone to donate. “Pat the Tapper,” as his co-workers call him, is smart and perceptive enough to know that most of the money he persuades people to give will not go where they say it goes. His greater curiosity about this fuels the show’s shift towards amateur investigations.
Lippman Stern, along with his cousin/co-director Adam Bhalla Love, understand the exciting allure of CDG’s workplace culture. But he also knows that the truly shocking thing about the job is how deceitful it was. Telemarketers, at their most extreme, get into the logistics of exploiting the sympathy of strangers while navigating their excuses. Fundraising for police groups has been a particularly lucrative business—not only because of how it allowed callers to weaponize fake feelings in the aftermath of 9/11, but also because of how the implied threat carried consequences for those who called. He didn’t Donates. Like any scammer, the businessmen behind CDG got bolder as they continued to get away with their scheme: eventually, callers were encouraged to identify themselves as cops, and lie about how little money was donated that would actually go to the victims’ families. fallen officers
The CDS will eventually be shut down after the government learns of its dirty practices. The biggest telemarketing scam in American history, as they called it. But soon the company was reformed under a different name, and many more appeared. The second episode is largely dedicated to Lippman Stern and Bispace revealing the whole truth about the fundraising racket. Why did the government fail to regulate or close this type of business? Telemarketers assume that places like CDG can continue to grab much of what they order because of their legitimate ties to powerful police unions, which have their own history of embezzling money. They don’t rob the cops. They cut it off.
What sets the series apart, of course, is that all of this is researched by two former employees who worked at the phones. Bispas portrays his search for answers as an attempt to atone for his participation in the system, but there is something self-aggrandizing in this “personal” dimension: “We stand up for the little man!” He declares this proudly, while boudoirly approving when Lippman Stern describes him as a journalist and whistleblower.
Bespas is clearly a thoughtful man, and it’s heartening to see him, over the course of the show’s 20 years, get his life together without losing his shaggy, lovable spark. But to suppose that his desire to tell this story is as interesting as the story itself is misplaced. Lippmann Stern may find his friend more formidable than we are, though he is at least able to recognize his own shortcomings as an interviewer: “I don’t think it occurred to me that Pat would offend this,” the director admits coyly. .
By the third episode, telemarketers have shifted almost entirely to a documentary about men trying to make a documentary. Michael Moore’s name is mentioned explicitly no fewer than three times, foreshadowing a number of scenes in which Bispas and Lippman Stern track down and ambush politicians. A tight and piercing 100-minute documentary is here, but it’s stretched across three three-hour TV episodes with a few navel-gazing.
However, as long as telemarketers delve into the anomalies of this business, it’s interesting. There is a strong awareness here that the infractions of the administrative staff sometimes depend on the desperation of the staff; Places like CDG have built their scams on the hard work of people with no other prospects, and even capitalized on their problems. (It’s no coincidence, one interviewee insisted, that these companies employ a lot of people with drug problems—they’re good communicators!) Lippman Stern and Bispace may have wrapped it all up in their personal journey for the same reason some telemarketers do. They customize their offers. : you sell it. But their inner visions are a lily that need not be gilded.