Smiling Friends is a show born of the Internet: a cacophonic, psychedelic, often terrifying-to-look at animated comedy that runs at about 11 minutes an episode. The whole series takes only the length of a relatively short feature film to watch. Creators Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack were originally entirely Internet-based artists, mostly known for their work on YouTube and the website Newgrounds. Their digital launching point is reflected powerfully in the aesthetics and ideas of Smiling Friends, which feels built for an audience submerged in the instant-gratification, short-attention-span designs of our current digital spaces.
Smiling Friends follows coworkers Charlie (Zach Hadel) and Pim (Michael Cusack) of Smiling Friends Inc., a company whose sole mission is to go out and get troubled people to smile. Its clients range from Desmond (Mike Stoklasa), a dejected working-class man on the brink of suicide, to a heartbroken video game addict shrimp named, quite literally, Shrimp (David Firth), and a famous frog actor, named, also quite literally, Mr. Frog (Cusack), who has been “canceled” after putting a journalist in his mouth.
References from our digital world are scattered throughout the show, like a sort of constant Easter egg hunt: Charlie plays the video game Rust, Mr. Frog tries to clear his name on The Tonight Show, and there are occasional auditory or visual gags referencing hyper-specific memes. Where Pim is a vastly optimistic romantic centered in the world and on all of its potential, Charlie is his balanced, pessimistic foil who spends a lot of time scrolling through his phone and involving himself in our modern urgency.
While the premise of the show is simple — and the plot descriptions are cutesy enough —Smiling Friends more often than not borders on horrific in its animation style. Hadel and Cusack create a sort of multimedia animation world: alongside our cute little 2-D protagonists are hyper-realistic, disturbing 3-D figures and the occasional human actor, all melding to create a sort of continual uncanny feeling. In the opening episode, Charlie and Pim are given an assignment by their employer, known only as Mr. Boss (Marc M.). While he is animated as a sort of big-headed tycoon type and exists in a massive black void of an office, our understanding of his entire being is upturned when, mid-meeting, he whips out a strange, almost Eraserhead-like baby, and begins breastfeeding him at his desk. These startling, icky visual gags run throughout Smiling Friends, always waiting to pounce mid-episode.
While Smiling Friends puts its absurd and silly plotlines first and foremost, a critique of our exhausted, overstimulated, late-stage capitalist culture hums underneath. Even the very notion of Charlie and Pim’s work — a capitalistic outsourcing of friendly behavior, loaded with paperwork and bureaucracy — is a bitingly sad observation of capitalism’s constant urge to commodify. When Charlie is sent to Hell (which is also running on a strange kind of bureaucracy that is underfunded), even Satan himself is stuck in what Charlie describes as a “loop of short-term dopamine rushes”: ordering DoorDash, vaping, and spending all of his time gaming or on Discord, bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t get paid until his job is done (“Which is… forever. It’s eternity,” the disturbing, 3-D Satan intones flatly).
Smiling Friends finds a funny and nuanced balance between being its own collection of “short-term dopamine rushes” entrenched in the digital zeitgeist while simultaneously pointing out how horrific and exhausting our online world (and the culture it produces) has become. Funny, weird, and a little scary, Smiling Friends encapsulates the noise of right now and presents it as something compelling, fresh, and atrocious.