Frame rating: ‘Smiling Friends’ is comedy over quantity

(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

With its quirky, colorful style and eight episode run, the first season of internet animators Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack’s “Smiling Friends” may initially seem like nothing more than a charming little novelty. Underneath its unassuming exterior, however, lies one of the best adult animated shows currently on television.

Released Jan. 10 on the nighttime comedy network Adult Swim, the show follows the adventures of two employees at a company devoted to making people smile, the lumpy laid back yellow fellow Charlie and the adorably optimistic Pim (whom I love with all of my heart). 

“Smiling Friends’” premise is a simple one, but it is a springboard for the characters’ wide array of absurd adventures. From a fantasy romp through a whimsical enchanted forest to a murder mystery involving a menagerie of fast food mascots, the episodes are as unpredictable as they are enjoyable.

The show’s look is similarly esoteric. It shines — distinct and offbeat — underneath layers of stylish, television-quality polish. It’s a delightful aesthetic hodgepodge, filled to the brim with an odd assortment of colorful characters in their own distinct styles, like the disturbingly detailed Mr. Boss and the sad, tangible stop-motion monster appropriately named 3D Squelton. 

The show is creative and, since it consists of only eight 11-minute episodes, can be watched in its entirety in under an hour and a half. Its brevity is understandable, considering that the entirety of “Smiling Friends” allegedly cost about $2 million to make, less than a single episode of “Family Guy.”

Yet, even with its concise runtime and humble budget, “Smiling Friends” blows a lot of adult animated comedies out of the water.

I don’t want to name any names, but just watch the trailers for shows like FOX’s “Housebroken” or Netflix’s “Paradise PD.” The world of adult animation is bogged down by bland and pandering cartoons with visual styles awfully reminiscent of “Family Guy,” except somehow even uglier. 

So, in an entertainment landscape filled with plenty of lazy, low-brow and soulless adult animated series, what makes Hadel and Cusack’s creation work? The answer is frustratingly obvious: it’s a show made by people who care.

There is a lack of respect for animation, especially from those in charge of making it. In the world of television, animation is seen as cheap, trendy and easy to produce. Pitch a quickly formulated show, get an actor or comedian in a sound booth for a few hours and outsource the cheapest animation available, and you’ve got a real board-room pleaser on your hands.

But “Smiling Friends” doesn’t feel like the money-hungry product of trend-obsessed men in suits or a middling comedian who doesn’t really care about cartoons. It’s the creation of two funny weirdos with a serious love for animation, and the final product speaks for itself. (But I will write on behalf of it anyway, as that is what I am paid to do.)

(That is a lie. I do this for free, like a fool.)

It is clear from the show’s originality and quality that this was not spawned from a desire to make something easy, but a desire to make something special. Though the show is short, it is the definition of quality over quantity, showing that passion can do a lot with just a little.

This is a show made by dedicated animators with a clear love of animation. Its ambition is evident in the creators’ varied artistic stylings, blending charming traditional 2D animation with bits of claymation, live action, rotoscoping and a near-perfect recreation of the Rankin/Bass animated hobbit

There is an unrestrained inventiveness within “Smiling Friends,” reminiscent of the creators’ roots in the lawless and imaginative Wild West of internet animation, but with a healthy injection of wit and nuance that era content often lacked. 

There’s a method to its madness. From Charlie’s reflective journey through the actually very real Christian Hell to the prophetic arrival of the era-inappropriate ‘Renaissance Men,’ the show contains a level of narrative and comic cohesiveness that assures each episode was, in fact, carefully plotted out. 

The nature of its creators’ dark comedic sensibilities and vibrant, disjointed style means that “Smiling Friends” certainly won’t be for everybody. The show just simply might not be your cup of tea, and that’s more than ok. 

Even if this show doesn’t interest you, it’s hard to deny that the passion behind “Smiling Friends” is admirable. By placing creative freedom in the hands of those with a genuine dedication to and admiration for their medium, Adult Swim got to put its name on something really, really stellar. If more shows, especially animated ones, were made with the creator-driven production style of “Smiling Friends,” the world would be a better place (or at least have better TV).

Despite the current sea of obnoxious, pandering cartoon sludge, I am optimistic. “Smiling Friends” has been renewed for a second season, and it seems networks like Adult Swim and services like Netflix are becoming more comfortable greenlighting interesting animation projects. 

To the swarm of high-profile TV execs reading this, I’m begging you. Please make more shows like this one and less like “Paradise PD.” 

Gerrit Punt PO ’24 also has some show ideas of his own, high-profile studio execs reading this. He’s not supposed to self promote, but this is a columnist bio. He can say whatever he wants here.

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