By Jackson Clyde
Ever since Adult Swim’s debut 20 years ago, Cartoon Network’s adult programming block has been home to some of the most esoteric, fascinating, and occasionally baffing animated content on television.
Shows such as “Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law,” “Metalocalypse,” “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and, of course, “Rick and Morty” have accumulated massive cult followings – but following the latter, it was exceptionally difficult for new series on the block to achieve a similar level of success.
That is, until “Smiling Friends” premiered this January.
“Smiling Friends” is an animated acid trip created by Australian animator Michael Cusack and YouTuber Zach Hadel, better known by his username psychicpebbles.
The series follows Pim and Charlie, a pair of employees working for Smiling Friends Inc. – a charity seeking to spread happiness all over the world.
It starts off normal enough, with Pim and Charlie trying to cheer up a suicidal man. However, the plot quickly escalates as the duo comes face-to-face with demons, a medieval fantasy world, murderous fast-food mascots, and even Satan himself.
Much of the humor comes from its main characters – who are ostensibly normal guys, navigating their way through these adventures. Cusack and Hadel provide their voices, managing to perfectly capture both Pim’s relentless optimism and Charlie’s stubborn cynicism, respectively.
Of course, that’s nothing to say of the supporting cast.
Smiling Friends Inc. also employs Alan, a controlling man obsessed with cheese, Glep, a green creature who exclusively talks in gibberish, and The Boss, a relatively friendly character who nevertheless makes me uncomfortable whenever he appears on screen.
All three are profoundly entertaining, though I feel they weren’t used as much as they could have been.
The show’s various one-off characters also tend to leave strong impressions. Desmond – the suicidal man we meet in the first episode – stuck with me largely due to an unforgettable performance by movie critic Mike Stoklasa.
I also have to give props to Erica Lindbeck, an experienced voice actress who plays almost every single woman in the show. However, she manages to make each role feel distinct and engaging.
Outside of the stellar cast, “Smiling Friends’” true strength is its eccentricity.
This visual variety becomes apparent in the very first episode, when the 2D animated characters are shown watching a 3D CGI cartoon of a dancing alien. CGI characters show up regularly throughout the series, in addition to live-action segments that can be rather disorienting.
The entire show seems designed to surprise you as much as possible, leaving you completely uncertain what will happen next.
For example, the third episode asks the audience to vote on whether they want a new character to join the main cast. It’s revealed that said character won the poll later in the episode, only to immediately die in the ending credits.
Another instance comes in episode eight, where a character brutally died almost out of nowhere.
While this kind of presentation may be off-putting to some, I couldn’t help but love it. It felt completely different from any cartoons I watched prior – ensuring that I was on the edge of my seat during each and every episode.
I cannot stress enough how much I ended up loving this series. It gave me hope that we could soon have another Adult Swim renaissance. With talented creators making strange, off-beat shows that befuddle and entertain new audiences.
Thankfully, it just got renewed for a second season, which means I have more of it to look forward to.
This is definitely a show to watch with your friends, by the way. Seeing them react to the constant insanity will never get tiring.
FINAL RATING: A