A Podcast That Sounds the Alarm on the American Dream

On a spring morning in Los Angeles, the podcaster Jane Marie stepped out onto the patio at the back of her rental home in Silver Lake for the first workout with her newly hired life coach, Jessie Monroy. An upbeat drill sergeant in glitter nail polish, Monroy put Marie through a routine of squats, planks and push-ups.

“I’m going to be so sore,” Marie complained as she caught her breath.

Monroy ignored the complaint. She reminded Marie to connect to her soul, to her spirit. “Your practice,” she continued, “is letting go of the doubt.”

The workouts, as well as nutritional consultation and some rituals involving the full moon, were Marie’s sincere attempt to improve upon the sedentary lifestyle she had adopted during the pandemic. But the coaching sessions were also a key component of the third season of “The Dream,” the podcast that she co-hosts with Dann Gallucci.

Each of the podcast’s incisive, scrappy seasons looks, with plenty of side eye, at a different aspect of the American dream and the swindles and institutions that claim to make that dream come true.

“It’s all about aspiration,” Marie said after she’d caught her breath. “It’s all about people trying to cash in the promise that we were all raised with, that America is a meritocracy.”

“The Dream,” which has been downloaded more than 20 million times, wants to question the belief that nothing keeps us from the rewards of wealth and health except for hard work and just possibly a $99 direct sales starter pack. The first season focused on multilevel marketing schemes, which has also led to a book, “Selling the Dream,” that Simon and Schuster will publish in March. Season 2, in which Marie subjected herself to fringe therapies (magnets, tuning forks), surveyed the wellness industry. In Season 3, which premiered on Wednesday, the show explores the phenomenon of coaching.

“We’re going to figure out why we’re so desperate for someone to tell us how to do life,” Marie says in the first episode. This time, she was desperate, too.

“The Dream” began in 2017 when an executive at the podcast company Stitcher approached Marie and Gallucci about producing a show concerning multilevel marketing companies. Marie, 45, had been a producer of “This American Life.” Gallucci, 48, is a former guitarist for the band Modest Mouse who had since transitioned into audio production. Romantic partners, they had recently opened their own studio, Little Everywhere. The idea appealed to them, so much so that Marie and Gallucci decided that they wanted to host as well as produce, in part because Marie had several friends and family members who had joined MLMs.

“We came up with the name and made it about the large, legal, institutional scams and frauds happening right under our noses,” Marie said.

There are plenty of podcasts about cons of all kinds: “Scam Goddess,” “Chameleon,” “Swindled,” “Oh My Fraud.” What sets “The Dream” apart is a particular mix of cynicism, compassion and genuine curiosity, most of it articulated in Marie’s crabby voice. “I’m like a petulant teen,” she said. “I’ve always been like that.”

Ira Glass, who gave Marie her first professional job in radio, on “This American Life,” described that voice as energetic, appealing and opinionated. “Jane is simultaneously out for fun and has a deep sense of injustice,” he said. “Often people who have a keen sense of ‘That’s not fair!’ aren’t also charismatically funny.”

Marie claims not to love how much she appears in the show. “I’m sick of my voice,” she said. But her voice defines it. And her irritability does not preclude empathy. At heart, “The Dream” is less about the scams themselves than why people fall for them. The episodes don’t judge or ridicule the people who become entangled in these schemes. Marie can identify with their hunger, their want and the ways in which more conventional routes to financial stability or well-being might have failed them. Instead the podcast asks, with genuine interest, why someone might fall for a fraud and which regulatory bodies failed to protect them.

Leital Molad, the senior vice president at Pushkin Industries, which partnered with Little Everywhere for this third season, appreciates this varied approach to storytelling. The show, she said, has the ability to focus narrowly on a personal narrative in one episode and then zoom out to consider systemic problems in the next. “It tells these quintessential stories of American capitalism,” she said.

The story this season, which overlaps in places with both wellness and MLMs, is told a little differently. Typically Marie takes a skeptical approach while Gallucci remains more broad-minded. (His term: “wishy-washy.”) “I have a tendency to be a little bit just more open,” he said in a joint interview last month. “I am not someone who’s always looking for a very specific answer. Because I don’t find that the world provides them very often.”

But Gallucci is less present in this season, in part because he and Marie broke up, in a rupture they discuss in an early episode. He spearheads fewer episodes, and there are fewer conversations between the two hosts.

“We’re not having as much fun together on tape, because we’re both heartbroken,” Marie said. During the video call, he said that he was uncertain of his future with the show, but doubted he would return to co-hosting.

So in making the season, Marie had to adopt some of her former partner’s openness. And back in the spring, she hoped that coaching might help with that.

“If any of these promises can be made true, I’m into it,” she told me then. “I would pay anything to have a different attitude about the universe. I don’t want to think about things the way I do, which is always so dark.”

With Pushkin’s urging and underwriting, she found Monroy and made a good-faith effort to live by her coach’s principles. Excepting what she calls “the woo-woo stuff,” her experience with Monroy, as she details on “The Dream,” was almost entirely positive. In March, she had hoped to become spryer, fitter, less overcome by existential dread. “Once I’m hot and fit, am I going to feel better about the universe?” she’d asked rhetorically.

Six months later, the question wasn’t so rhetorical. With Monroy’s urging, she had quit her Juul, improved her diet, undergone surgery to remove a uterine fibroid, started hormone therapy, permed her hair.

“I became a lot more proactive and better in a lot of different areas of my life,” Marie said. “I’m not as grumpy as I was.”

But as lucky as she feels to have found Monroy, she remains conflicted about the cost of coaching, about the privilege it implies, and about the businesses — particularly those that train coaches to recruit others to coach — that perpetuate the practice. Some grumpiness remains, as does the healthy skepticism that characterizes the show. This season abounds with critiques of hustle culture and the American obsession with success at any cost. However hot and fit, she has not let go of doubt completely.

She frowned at me through the Zoom screen. “I do still think a lot of coaches are scammers,” she said.

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