Photo by Kobby Mendez on Unsplash

The brainchild of Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel, Smiling Friends is a love letter to shortcomings. The pilot episode was released on April Fool’s Day, 2020, and, almost two years later, the full season premiered in January 2022. We watch five co-workers — Charlie, Pim, Alan, Mr. Boss and Glep — run an eponymous small business dedicated to making people smile. Sitcom? Satire? Horror? All of the above, really.

While seemingly sweet, the show is largely predicated on dark humour and surrealism, and — crucially — on the juxtaposition of these elements with aspects of modern living, resulting in a show that is ultimately best described as absurd. Each episode is only around ten minutes long, with settings ranging from a Brazilian airport to an enchanted forest, characters ranging from God to a depressed shrimp, and with themes landing anywhere between petty jealousy to existential dread.

“Most of the premises feel as though they were conceived in the middle of a rambling conversation between two distracted stoners”

By refusing to define anything, the show succeeds in limiting nothing. Any given character is designed with the sole intention of heightening the nature of the character itself: one look at Charlie or Pim clearly demonstrates their distinct personalities through a simple combination of colour and shape. Some characters are rotoscoped; some are hideously detailed; some are animated at entirely different frame rates to others, playing with the laws of time and space.

adult swim/youtube

The settings follow similarly absurd rules. The street where the offices of Smiling Friends are located changes according to the whims of any given episode: if the Halloween special requires Pim to walk through a spooky forest, the forest appears just outside; if an episode is premised on a rival business called Frowning Friends, the new offices open up across the street. Human actors are used occasionally, as in the murder-mystery episode “Who Violently Murdered Simon S. Salty?” The animation of a witch chopping onions might be genuinely impressive in its realism, only for that same witch to fly away moments later with all the gravitas of minimising an image in Microsoft Word. The show, acting on any whim or impulse, results in an entirely unpredictable totality.

This unpredictability would fall short, however, without Pim and Charlie, the core protagonists. Perhaps the best decision the show made was to make most of the core characters actually like each other. The contrarian nature of most current television has resulted in a unanimous insistence on going against the grain in a rather lazy way: by making protagonists dislike each other. This isn’t inherently uninteresting, nor is its pessimism innately bad; many of the jokes in Smiling Friends are more genuinely disturbing and depressing than anything accomplished, perhaps even attempted, by your Rick and Mortys or your South Parks. No: rather, we’ve come to expect such dynamics, so they no longer interest us. The characters in Smiling Friends behave largely like real people: this, contrasted with the surrealist style of the show, is perhaps the show’s central conduit of humour.

“It feels as though it were entirely improvised and recorded accidentally.”

For every painfully realistic moment, there is one of outright absurdity. Pim’s single strand of hair, which in another show might have been a purely stylistic flourish, tragically transpires to be an exposed nerve ending which, when touched, afflicts him with terrible jolts of pain. At the beginning of the episode ‘Charlie Dies and Doesn’t Come Back’, Charlie attempts to chop down a tree while distracted and is brutally crushed, only to be resurrected a mere 10 minutes later, by none other than God Himself. In the first episode, Alan finds a man living in the walls of their office while trying to hunt down a mouse: the man gives no reason for being there, but is awfully touchy about Alan not announcing his intention to enter before crawling through the gap in the wall. There are sometimes no stakes to the weirdness: it simply is.


Mountain View

Ryan Murphy once made horror hot. What happened?

Smiling Friends is perhaps the best animated show of the last five years, apparently effortlessly. Most of the premises feel as though they were conceived in the middle of a rambling conversation between two distracted stoners (which they probably were). It feels as though it were entirely improvised and recorded accidentally, and it takes a lot of talent to pull such a show off with such nonchalance. Smiling Friends takes the sum of all the mistakes made by other shows, inverts these problems, and spits out diamonds.