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Smiling Friends Is a Balm

Photo: Adult Swim

I’ll be honest, I haven’t found much of a reason to smile lately. The world is, to put it in layman’s terms, a fucked-up place right now, and there aren’t many days I go to bed with warm feelings of hope and optimism for the road ahead. Maybe three years into a global pandemic it is to be expected — but that doesn’t mean it’s welcome. When the atmosphere is this dark, it drives us into the deeper recesses of our subconscious, falling victim to the rabbit- hole spiral of “How in the hell did we get here?” I think a lot of us have gotten to the point where we don’t really want to try answering that question anymore. In that case, might I present you with a bit of a salve? Adult Swim’s latest adult animation entry, Smiling Friends, is here to save the day, at least for the moment, until something else reminds us of the crushing realities of existence once again.

The inaugural season of tenish-minute odysseys follows co-worker pals Pim and Charlie, who spend their workdays trying to make people smile, literally, with varied and unhinged results. You see, they are employed by a company called Smiling Friends, and their office is a globe-shaped smiling face placed between unassuming buildings on an unassuming street. Pim, a sweet and dedicated optimist, and Charlie, a cynical steward of unaffected dude culture, are sent off each day to pull folks out of their depression and despair. It inevitably becomes a daunting task each time, as they face the trials and tribulations of this cold world.

The weird and wild new show is the perfect binge-watch remedy for our collective societal unease and unrest, and its dark heart is the very peak of catharsis — namely because of the mirror it shines upon our mask acne–riddled and Oreo crumb–covered faces, showing us ourselves on the same noble quest in the flesh world. Because yes, we are on that same quest. Many of us are living in a vat of our emotions 24/7 now, and I know when I leave my safe space (bedroom) for the outside world, I find myself, sometimes even subconsciously, chatting up a cashier with a pointed laugh or complimenting a fellow shopper’s shoes. We’re all trying to get by in this world, to make it to another day, to try our best at living. The characters Pim and Charlie encounter — the happily volatile sitcom star Mr. Frog, the introspective and heartbroken gamer Shrimp, and the Princess of the Enchanted Forest, just to name a few — are doing the same exact thing. It’s clear their world, like ours, isn’t exactly kind either. Racism exists there; family fallouts too. Social justice, the toxicity of the entertainment industry, stalkers, heartbreak: These themes are just a selection of the complicated aspects of life laid bare in the world of Smiling Friends. In the face of these struggles, we all — us and the Smiling Friends — just try to make it until tomorrow.

Pim and Charlie, for all the existential crises they face in season one, do a good job of picking themselves back up again in the face of adversity. These characters are all of us, their contrasting differences mirroring the mood swings brought on by spending two-plus years stuck inside. In the pilot episode, Pim and Charlie are tasked with helping an older man at the brink of suicide. It’s grim, and Charlie sees the task as potentially impossible. Pim forces him to see the job through, putting an ungodly amount of blind, and kind, faith in the man’s ability to find a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Pim takes on his jobs with his head held high, happy to make others happy for another day. Charlie is all the more fatalistic in his approach, doing the bare minimum because he has to. It’s hard not to connect with these characters on that base level, to be drawn in by their yin and yang because you see it in yourself. Hell, I even see myself in the man they try to help, a middle-aged dude named Desmond who doesn’t see any point in living after his wife and kids ditched and made his world that much bleaker.

That mirror-image concept is interspersed perfectly within the show’s dark tone and unsettling animation style, which gives way to SpongeBob SquarePants–esque hyperrealistic, unnerving close-up cuts and creepy supporting character design (some of each impeccably done by horror artist Dan A. Peacock). Creators Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack — animators and voice actors who do pretty much everything on the series save for some vocal performances from celeb friends like Finn Wolfhard — debuted the pilot episode on April Fools’ Day 2020 and it immediately garnered a buzz. Just over a year later, it was officially green-lit for season one, which premiered less than a month ago, all in one night like a blissfully insane fever dream. In a way, the Australian duo kind of took on their own Smiling Friends quest by making the show. By bringing us into a new, messed-up, imperfect world, Hadel and Cusack highlighted our own while reminding us it’s okay to be imperfect, just as we are. To be as damaged and broken and drained as we are unabashedly, because from there, we find reasons — silly, stupid, profound, or otherwise — to smile again.

I can’t force your thumb on the remote, but I can implore you to head over to Adult Swim (or HBO Max starting today) and make this show a to-do list priority. Let’s face it, you’re not gonna get any of the other stuff done anyway. Besides it will make you — and everyone to whom you recommend it — want to die a little less right now, and for that it’s worth welcoming into your trauma-stained little heart. It’s like smiling with a friend.

Smiling Friends Is a Balm