It was probably inevitable. Reddit, which became the not-so-secret clubhouse for the most obsessed of the “Serial” obsessives has just launched its own version of the "This American Life" spinoff.
“Upvoted” is the first production from Reddit’s new “podcast network,” which launches today. Today’s release is described as the first episode (they call it "Episode 0") of a show that aims to “dig a little deeper” into the stories told daily on Reddit. The episode is devoted to a Reddit employee’s redemption narrative: how Dante Orpilla kept his hope alive in prison by reading the site, which then employed him in his “dream job” after his release.
But the first episode of "Upvoted" is unsuccessful on almost every level; from its cheap opening gimmicks, to its promotional overtones, and even its content. For anyone still stinging from the disappointment of “Serial”’s season one finale, this is a healthy reminder: it could always get worse.
Is it fair to compare “Upvoted,” Reddit’s first foray into podcasting, with “Serial”? Probably not, but “Upvoted” invites the comparison from the get-go. “Serial”’s first season is about a convict—Adnan Syed—who may or may not be guilty of murder. "Upvoted" is about a man—Orpilla—who served a prison sentence for what seems to have been a drug-related felony (though this is never stated) that many would argue is not just. “Serial” introduced Syed and explained his story thought the chatty, digressive questioning of the show’s host, Sarah Koenig. “Upvoted” host and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian assumes similar responsibilities, even delivering a goofy introduction to an ad from the show’s sponsor that sounds awkwardly like Koenig’s request for donations. From “Upvoted”’s almost-familiar theme song, to its empty investigative promises to “dig a little deeper,” Reddit’s first podcast could easily be mistaken for one of the many spoofs of Serial.
But “Upvoted”’s greatest crime is not its clumsy imitation of “Serial”’s quirks. “Upvoted” is an insult to the very form of the podcast, because it’s actually an elaborate, 34-ish minute promotion for three things: Reddit itself, which Ohanian and Orpilla repeatedly venerate throughout the episode; for a nonprofit-in-progress called Tech Hungry, which donates technology to schools in developing countries; and Orpilla’s calendar app, Dials, whch he plans to launch “by January.” And that’s just the stuff in the middle—the show is bookended by ads for Squarespace.
So what makes up the rest of the show? Unlike “Serial”’s first season, which has been called “a master class in investigative journalism,” “Upvoted” is basically just a guy telling his life story. Occasionally, Ohanian or another man who has worked with Orpilla weighs in to discusss Orpilla’s odyssey. (It’s notable that only men were featured in this podcast from a website that is notoriously “anti-women.”) Orpilla talks about a band he was in, how he was betrayed by a friend who set up the fake drug deal that lead to Orpilla’s arrest. He also describes how he was nearly sentenced to ten years by a conservative judge; at the last minue, when the conservative judge was injured, a more lenient judge took over the sentencing. He also details how he learned about technology while in prison from a man he connected with on Reddit, and then taught fellow prisoners about what to expect after jail. But because Orpilla’s story is interspersed with advertisements delivered by Ohanian and Orpilla themselves, the entire show sounds like a giant endorsement. This undermines both the power of Orpilla’s redemption narrative and the listener’s trust in Orpilla and Ohanian as storytellers.
This is unfortunate because Orpilla’s story—which ends (but “is far from over”) with him concentrating on his art professionally, working for RedditGifts, and reuniting with his son—is powerful. It certainly has a more satisfying resolution than "Serial" had. But it’s not the right story for Reddit to turn into a podcast—that is if Reddit wants to make a podcast. But they shouldn't call loosely connected advertisements a podcast.
Meanwhile, Orpilla’s story should be told—as, in fact, it was, by The Kernel, Daily Dot’s Sunday magazine, in November—by an institution that doesn’t stand to gain by making him a hero. That was the strength of “Serial”—the never-ending, explicit examination of Koenig’s proclivities and affections; she never stopped interrogating herself as much as her subject.
All that said, Tech Hungry sounds like it has noble and important motives. If this “podcast” raises the group’s profile, then at least there’s one up-vote-worthy aspect to "Upvoted"’s debut.