Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern’s new three-part HBO documentary Telemarketers occupies a space on the nonfiction continuum somewhere between the angry, journalistic interrogation of early Michael Moore and the more laid-back, observational curiosity of the Nathan Fielder/John Wilson school.
It’s a slightly precarious position. As a muckraking crusade, Telemarketers conveys and synthesizes less revelatory information than your typical Last Week Tonight With John Oliver main story — which is to say that anything you learn from the documentary you probably could have learned five years ago if you’d just wanted to know. As more personal storytelling, the series sometimes lacks introspection and sufficient autobiographical candor.
The Bottom Line Compassionate and likably zany, if not always revelatory.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Sunday, August 13 (HBO)
Directors: Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern
In the uneasy blending, though, Telemarketers finds something that’s frequently funny, unexpectedly poignant and occasionally rather special. It isn’t going to topple an industry, but its story of two unlikely friends who, after doing the wrong thing for a long time, decide to at least attempt to do the right thing — because if they don’t, then nobody will — becomes a celebration of effort and resilience that’s perhaps more inspiring.
As he explains it, when Lipman-Stern was 14, he dropped out of high school. Sam, whose interests seem to have involved smoking weed and skateboarding with friends, took a job at the only place that would hire somebody with his credentials: Civic Development Group.
Never heard of it? They pioneered many of the practices associated with modern telemarketing in small boiler room offices packed with burnouts, addicts, reformed criminals and other members of society’s fringes. Intrigued by this world — in which bawdy humor, public drug use and a miasma of danger apparently went hand-in-hand with raising money for first-responder charities — Sam began documenting the workplace hijinks with a home movie camera.
Sam had questions about the highly scripted nature of the intrusive phone calls and was wary about some of the claims that CDG had its employees making — implications of direct connections to specific police and firefighter groups or promises about the percentages of the collected money actually going to the charities. But he didn’t have a lot of choices, nor did his coworkers. Accompanied by colleague Pat, legendary for his sales acumen and for being high on the job, Sam began to shift his filming from workplace hijinks to workplace improprieties. As CDG imploded amid regulatory crackdowns, Sam and Pat decided that they had an opportunity to be whistleblowers on an entire industry.
This struggle, though, is not a straight line. Over two decades, sometimes with large gaps between filming sessions, Sam and Pat’s investigation stops and starts as they poke around into the lucrative industry and its connections with shady unions. Sam sees the opportunity to be Michael Moore — a comparison he makes multiple times over three episodes — and Pat imagines himself akin to Erin Brockovich as they travel the country, conduct interviews with powerful and sketchy people, battle their own demons and experience 20 years of life’s highs and lows.
The show that Telemarketers — a generic title that doesn’t capture the specific professional niche CDG operated in — most closely resembles isn’t Moore’s The Awful Truth or Fielder’s Nathan For You, but rather For Heaven’s Sake. In that series (part of Paramount+’s original roll-out in 2021 but recently pulled from the service in a now-familiar streaming content write-off), a pair of Canadian comedians with no detective training attempted to solve an 80-year-old disappearance. In the process, they made a few actual discoveries, but spent more time talking to colorful characters and delving into their friendship.
Sam has a camera, but no training (Lough, a cousin with actual filmmaking experience, comes into the process around midway). Pat has a quick mind, which he’s constantly dulling, but possibly even less training. They don’t know how to compose or light their shots. They don’t know the protocol for proper interviews. They push on, sometimes with the help of actual professionals, but more frequently carried by the righteousness of their quest. They talk to journalists and police officers and at least one very high-profile politician. They share memories with old co-workers, all highly amused by the scam they were part of.
Telemarketers is funny because the cast of characters is funny, albeit in a way that’s disturbing. You’ve never heard quite so many people swearing and chortling and callously discussing bilking geriatrics out of money, making veiled and not-so-veiled threats and spinning colorful lies.
Now SHOULD it be funny? That’s a different question. There’s a lot of criminality being treated with levity here, some of it fairly innocent and some of it aggressively abusive. If you’ve ever fielded a call from a stranger asking you to assist law-enforcement widows or different benevolent societies with the promise of a seemingly magical decal sticker for your car, you’ll go through waves of recognition, discomfort and maybe horror. The filmmakers only judge the perpetrators at the highest level, not the poorly paid minions, even in the cases they might deserve judgment.
Sam remains a mystery throughout, with an absence of openness that I found frustrating at times. Pat, however, is a wonderful character (read: person). Along with Benny and Josh Safdie and regular collaborators David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, Danny McBride is an executive producer here and one can easily imagine McBride taking one look at Pat and imagining the Emmy he might win for a scripted version of Telemarketers. Pat charges along blindly in his journalistic pursuit, making mistakes that range from hilarious to mortifying, even if they’re always driven by his commitment to the cause and his commitment to his friend. Pat is a flawed guy, but he sees an opportunity to be heroic, which counts as an even higher calling than being the next Michael Moore.
The documentary forces you to readjust your expectations both for the genre and for the two protagonists. Maybe you could be disappointed by how much of what Sam and Pat are discovering feels either repetitive or obvious. But at the same time, it’s probably easier to be amazed by how much progress they’re making at all, especially in the third episode. You can also ponder the improvement in Sam’s technical skills from the messy anarchy of his early filming at CDG, when his clips immediately went up on YouTube and looked like that was where they belonged, to the still-loose polish he eventually achieves (with Lough’s contributions, no doubt).
Telemarketers got me a little angry and outraged, but not as much as I might have hoped, given the topic. However, I laughed a lot and, thanks to Pat’s willingness to expose his frailties to the camera, I found an appreciation for Sam and Pat and their fellowship and their quest. That level of compassion and humanizing is what puts Telemarketers ahead of anything in Michael Moore’s recent output, and if the documentary inspires John Oliver and company to boil its thesis into a more clear-headed and cogent argument, that’s a valuable next step.