Adult Swim has built a reputation over the years for putting out very unique and experimental animation projects and their most recent series, “Smiling Friends,” is no exception. Created by Zach (PsychicPebbles) Hadel and Michael Cusack, this series was highly anticipated due to both creators being successful YouTuber cartoonists for over a decade.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not Adult Swim’s first show made by a YouTuber as Cusack himself created their cartoon, “YOLO Crystal Fantasy,” last year. Even further back, the live-action sketch show, “MDE: World Peace,” was on the network. This is nothing new for Adult Swim, but it’s still a very unique work of animation.
This is one of the few cartoons to ever truly embrace the medium of animation and all of its capabilities for comedy. Often, cartoons will rely on sharp writing, but the visuals are just as important — not just with clever visual gags, though there are plenty, but with how the characters move.
Each character has their own distinctive animation style. For example, some characters will move incredibly smoothly while others move with limited two frames of animation. The choices fit the characters, adding a lot of personality, and are often humorous.
The sheer variety is astonishing. You’ll have characters that are rotoscoped, characters made of CGI, stop motion characters and claymation characters. Some jokes feature detailed painting shots, much like those scenes in “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Ren and Stimpy.” There are even a few instances of live action.
Even among the characters animated in the same style, the designs are all so different, with people ranging from looking like weird gremlins to looking like Bitmojis. Despite all that, it all fits seamlessly. They still feel like they’re part of the same universe. This almost feels like the adult version of the “Amazing World of Gumball” in terms of visual variety but going even further.
Now, I did mention earlier how the creators got their start online and on YouTube, and as a result, this show is much more in tune with the internet than other shows tend to be. I feel it gives it a bit of a breath of fresh air, as it’s so far removed from traditional TV conventions and dips into elements unique to the internet.
There are various more direct references, as many YouTubers make cameos such as The Angry Video Game Nerd, Mike from RedLetterMedia and Chills of “Burger King Foot Lettuce” fame. If you don’t already know the reference you likely won’t even notice one was being made. The guest actors are also playing characters, so it just comes off as another funny voice rather than a blatant cameo.
There are also many references for animation fans. For example, during the fantasy episode one of the characters is a direct parody of a character from Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings” movie. They even go through the effort of animating him exactly as he was in the original film. To me, this was a fun detail, but to someone else, it still works as a funny, strangely animated character, just like the many others that showed up.
As for the characters, the show follows the Smiling Friends, consisting of the cheerful Pim and the more cynical Charlie. Each episode follows these two trying to solve a problem in someone’s life and make them smile. Sometimes the issues are insanely dark due to the show being for adults, but many times, it’s not.
As the series goes along, the format shifts sometimes and even includes a solo episode for each character respectively. Some episodes are so far removed from the premise that it feels like another Adult Swim show, “Aqua Team Hunger Force,” whose premise was just a loose jumping off point as the series developed into something unrecognizable from the pilot.
There’s also a solid supporting cast, but so far, they haven’t had much to do outside of one or two b-plots. My favorite episodes were Episode 2, in which they try to help revitalize the career of an actor after a major scandal, and Episode 7, in which a rival company called the Frowning Friends show up and do essentially the opposite job to them. That episode in particular takes a few shots at other cartoons, particularly nihilistic ones like “Rick and Morty,” directly making fun of the philosophy.
One of the most fascinating elements of the show is the shocking lack of cynicism. Being internet creators starting way back in the 2000s, edgy cynical humor was expected being the norm at the time. If you look at their online content you would also see that, but this show ultimately was more positive than most shows on the network.
It not relying on shock humor and actively critiquing nihilism makes it stand out tonally and thematically from Adult Swim’s other shows despite in many ways stylistically fitting in perfectly among that same line up. When you watch the first episode of the show it positions itself as a parody of the premise with the way Pim reacts but for the most part it’s played straight.
Fair warning — this show can get weird. It pushed a lot of boundaries. You may assume that means the show is offensive, but I wouldn’t say that. Instead of shock humor, it has more of an odd delivery. The jokes can get uncomfortable but not in an edgy way. It sometimes feels like anti-humor, something that really pushes you out of your comfort zone until you have no choice but to crack up. While you can see some developments coming, this allows the show to be mostly remarkably fresh. I’d give it a solid five out of five crabs.