Smiling Friends

Adult animation has rapidly expanded as a genre over the last few years, gradually shedding the characteristics people have associated with it in favor of embracing new themes and methods of storytelling. This is most apparent in works like Arcane, which took the world by storm and appealed to fans of animation, video games, and live action projects alike, demonstrating a mature form of storytelling almost unheard of in western animation. However, the shift is just as present in more conventional shows. Adult Swim’s new show Smiling Friends is a great example of this.

Smiling Friends is an absurdist, deadpan, dark comedy that premiered in early 2022. The premise concerns a pair of coworkers, Pim and Charlie, and their work for the titular Smiling Friends company– an organization dedicated to making people smile. They find themselves in a plethora of surreal situations, ranging from enchanted forests to fast food murder mysteries, but are always looking to solve problems and bring a cheerful smile to the faces of their clients.

The show’s unorthodox qualities lie not in its plot, but in its origin. Smiling Friends was created by Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack, both self-taught animators with a long career of content creation on YouTube. While both have gained some experience with animating and writing for television, lending their talents to shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Koala Man, most of their success stemmed from their original content on their respective YouTube channels. Despite the difficult and unpredictable nature of the internet, they both amassed a considerable following for their works– enough that they were green-lit for a full season on the popular channel, Adult Swim.

Where most animators enter the industry and work to visualize the concepts of another creator, these two were lucky enough to find an opportunity in which they can actualize their own ideas. Their own animation techniques are prevalent throughout the show, their unusual background setting them apart from the clean art styles of most other adult animation programs. The character’s designs are often simplistic and their movements can seem jagged, but the intention behind this is made clear when it is interrupted with entirely different elements. Several times throughout the first season, the creators use different mediums in addition to their usual cartoon style to surprise and unsettle the audience. 

This is especially compelling in the show’s Halloween special, in which Pim is chased by an unseen creature through the woods. When the beast is finally revealed, it is shown to be a horrifying stop-motion demon, screeching and shambling towards the camera with inhuman speed. In the episode “Who Violently Murdered Simon S. Salty?” one of the characters is simply live action footage of an actor cropped and pasted into the environment for the other characters to interact with. Furthermore, the fantasy themed episode “Enchanted Forest” is a clear reference to the famous Rankin and Bass adaptation of The Hobbit in 1977, parodying Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Sméagol, and the film’s uncanny character designs.

Smiling Friends is the result when animators and artists are given creative freedom and the time to experiment with style and medium. Hadel and Cusack were given a rare opportunity and they’ve been using it to explore the boundaries of animation, surrealism, and of course, what it means to smile.

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