How do we escape nihilism in hopes of a better future, not just for ourselves but for society? Well, I don’t claim to be a philosopher or psychiatrist, so I can’t give an easy answer for that. Like everyone else, I have my own philosophies on life but no definitive answers. But sometimes it’s important to not focus on the stuff we don’t know. But as we find ourselves in an age of mainstream nihilism and extremity, it’s hard to keep hold of that blissful optimism from time to time. That’s why Adult Swim’s Smiling Friends is such a fresh and funny idea that also happens to be the happiest I’ve felt watching an adult animation for quite some time.
Smiling Friends was created and produced by animators Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel, the latter being otherwise known as ‘psychicpebbles’ on YouTube. Both have been longtime animators in the YouTube sphere; Michael Cusack has had a successful career as a filmmaker and animator, running a YouTube account of his animated shorts and producing TV projects like YOLO: Crystal Fantasy and Bushworld Adventures. Meanwhile, Zach Hadel is a famed YouTube and Newgrounds animator, though his canceled web series Hellbenders he created with Chris O’Neil (OneyNG, another popular YouTube animator) was pitched (in a very rough and very unfinished pilot) to Adult Swim but failed to be greenlit, the studio supposedly adding that it is “the worst pitch they’ve ever seen”.
So here we have the two similar but noticeably distinct minds of Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel butting together, and Smiling Friends was their brainchild: a surreal, vibrant, nightmarish world where anything and everything is on the table. Smiling Friends follows a small company called Smiling Friends Incorporated, whose duty is to bring happiness and positivity to their clients, leading to the various misadventures of employees Pim (voiced by Michael Cusack), Charlie (voiced by Zach Hadel), Alan, Glep, and their boss, appropriately named Mr. Boss. Smiling Friends is a completely and utterly deranged show that is also unforgivingly optimistic, hopeful, and sincere. Though it can be often dark, violent, and lean towards cynicism, it never falls into the nihilism and apathy that overtakes almost all adult animation today. Full of subtle references to Newgrounds and other internet humor, as well as tons of familiar voices like Harry Partridge, Lyle Rath, and Chills Top 15, it’s also one of the very best programs Adult Swim has put out alongside Xavier Renegade Angel and Venture Bros.
Take the pilot and season premiere, for example, ‘Desmond’s Big Day Out’. It begins with Smiling Friends Inc. on a typical day, with Pim eagerly trying to show his co-worker and best friend Charlie a video. This brings me to one of my absolute favorite aspects of the show: the mellow and genuine conversations between the characters. Before and/or after the insane plot has ensued for each episode, we get a normal slice of characters having genuine exchanges that feel far too real. They don’t mean anything in the long run and just eat up the runtime, but these short moments bring such humanity to the world and characters. It’s hard to listen to Pim and Charlie argue about Christmas joy and not feel a part of yourself with these characters at this moment.
Back to the episode, Pim and Charlie are tasked to help someone named Desmond lift his spirits. Expecting nothing more than a moody child, Pim and Charlie instead encounter a depressed grown man pointing a revolver at his head who desperately wants to end it all, and also happens to be voiced by Mike Stoklasa from RedLetterMedia. Charlie is shocked and wants to get out of this situation, but Pim eagerly accepts the task to make Desmond smile. Though these efforts by Pim are in vain, never able to prove to Desmond that life is worth living and only proved that everything, even happiness, is temporary.
But that’s only how Desmond feels. This wasn’t the show’s subversive moment of rearing its head into nihilism. Charlie and Pim don’t give up on Desmond because they, too, have given up on life; they just know that this situation is completely out of their depth and don’t know what to say. Pim is well-meaning and enthusiastic, but he doesn’t have all the answers to the difficult questions about life and prosperity. Because, after all, we as humans don’t have all the answers. Some people are more equipped to deal with these problems. And those problems aren’t people like Desmond. The very existence of Smiling Friends Incorporated is the problem: the manufactured idea of forcing depressed, lost people to be happy without them discussing their concerns. This is an endemic that is prevalent in the education system and the workforce, where the preservation of happiness isn’t just seen as a solution, it’s the world’s placebo.
But, eventually, Desmond does find meaning in life. Not by a solution that Charlie and Pim fixed up, but because of Desmond finding the purpose himself. He uses his revolver to shoot a Bliblie, a small murderous critter that begins to infest Smiling Friends, Inc. This moment gives a newfound Desmond clarity in life: he cleans himself up and starts a business to help exterminate Bliblies. In the end, the Smiling Friends helped make Desmond smile, after all. Pim may be confused and destroyed by his “failure”, but Charlie considers it a work well done.
Despite being best friends, Charlie and Pim couldn’t be more unalike. Though they both wish to make people smile, their attitudes towards life are totally different. As previously mentioned, Pim is excitable and eager to help everyone but tends to force his happiness on others no matter the mood. Charlie is jaded and mellowed-out, seldom letting anything faze him. If anything, it’s just funny to hear Zach Hadel, known for such a crass and twisted sense of humor, play the straightman here. Better yet, it’s obvious that Zach wrote some of the most deranged jokes in the series and then wrote himself as the straightman to said jokes. Specifically, jokes that originated from OneyPlays, the gaming channel hosted by Chris O’Neil and a variety of other voices, including Zach himself. But these jokes are less references and more just how Zach speaks.
All this being said, it’s easy to see Smiling Friends as being structured very much like an edutainment program with its very simple premise. They go on wacky and sometimes life-threatening misadventures, but in the end, they always succeed in making their eccentric clients smile. Very much like Sesame Street, Smiling Friends is just naturally good-hearted without a cynical bone in its body. Though it may often fall into depravity and dark subjects, the show remains optimistic and joyful throughout, much like the main characters in the show. But then all that comes to a head when that philosophy is challenged. For Smiling Friends Incorporated have finally met their match in mainstream nihilism.
Smiling Friends may only have just wrapped up its first season, but it’s already brought us an utterly important episode, and if I may be ludicrous in saying this, the very best episode they’ll likely ever do: ‘Frowning Friends’. In this episode, Charlie casually tells Pim that the Renaissance Men are coming to town, then a new company moves into town called Frowning Friends and is stationed just across the street from Smiling Friends. Pim and Charlie go to check out the new business and it is revealed the Frowning Friends are the virtual opposites of them: cherishing misfortune and sadness in their lives. They introduce themselves as Grim and Gnarly and their motivations remain unclear. Though if you put their company name together and the fact they’re practically the doppelgangers of Pim and Charlie, then you have an idea who they are at this point. If Pim and Charlie are responsible for bringing happiness to people, then Grim and Gnarly bring sadness and nihilism to everyone they come across.
Grim and Gnarly are the perfect symbols for the commercial mainstream nihilism that resonates in our culture so heavily right now. One of the most popular adult-animated shows out there right now, Rick and Morty, has become so reliant on existentialism and nihilism that what used to be Rick’s character trait has just bled into the show’s central identity. It’s not just our entertainment that’s been plagued, but in our social media as well. Nihilism and apathy reside in no greater place than the likes of Twitter, where the widespread celebration of nihilism is stronger now than it seems it’s ever been. But is this societal philosophy, or is it all simply performative?
That’s not to say nihilism in itself is inherently bad; finding yourself skeptical about life, morality, and desires helps you find value and purpose in a world where you believe none actually exists. But the dark side of nihilism, what’s given it such a poor reputation, is found in spreading your unhappiness and joylessness upon others. Especially in today’s world where we continue to suffer the seemingly-neverending nightmare that is the COVID-19 pandemic and political incompetence, hope and passion are all we can hope for, though it’s also where nihilism seems to be at its all-time peak. Though, again, is it sincere? No doubt genuine nihilism exists in the world, but in the age of digital communication and Twitter, nihilism has become less a philosophy and more a crutch to seem more intelligent and “woke”. And we certainly don’t need Twitter trolls to spread their performative nihilism onto others like Grim and Gnarly.
Pim and Charlie report to Mr. Boss about the new business Frowning Friends. He seems disturbed, but tells them to not worry and that it’s just “some friendly competition”. Pim and Charlie go out to make people smile, only to find out Grim and Gnarly have already infected nearly the whole city; residents like DJ Spit being told to give up their dreams, Mr. Man feeling bad about his appearance, and 3D Squelten’s hopes of being a balloon salesman dashed because of a helium shortage in 15-20 years. Grim and Gnarly spread sadness not strictly due to maliciousness, but because they believe they’re truly doing the world a favor by sharing harsh truths.
In the climactic peak of the episode, Pim and Charlie notice a rally held by Frowning Friends. Grim shares nihilistic propaganda about how there’s no greater feeling than frowning, in which Pim protests. Grim pleads to the police to arrest them for “bullying a mentally ill person such as himself”. After being detained by Frowning Friends security (Alan and Glep, who quit Smiling Friends for a better 401K), Grim and Gnarly then play the brutal cruelties of reality on a large television. War, famine, starvation, and homelessness are being played to the masses. Pim shields his eyes, while Charlie is completely unfazed, saying he’s seen way worse things on the internet.
Charlie has always been a fascinating character. As previously mentioned, Charlie is completely jaded but doesn’t let anything faze him. As anyone else should, Charlie just goes with the flow and doesn’t find himself motivated by negativity unlike those like Grim and Gnarly. In the case of this scene, in particular, Charlie knows about the sad cruelty found in reality, but he doesn’t let it consume him like so many people do, nihilists like Grim and Gnarly.
Throughout this episode, Mr. Boss is slowly losing his mind. With Smiling Friends about to shut down due to Frowning Friends, Mr. Boss takes it upon himself, in a dark twist, to storm Frowning Friends with an assault rifle and kill Grim and Gnarly. As the rally happens, Mr. Boss breaks into the Frowning Friends building and makes his way up. During Grim’s speech, it is revealed their ultimate plan is to eradicate smiling, make the whole world frown, and eventually wipe out all the Puerto Ricans from the planet for unknown reasons. Though the audience is deterred by that statement, Grim quickly wins them back over. He pronounces nothing matters because we all die one day. Then Mr. Boss busts in and points the gun at Grim, and Grim falls to his knees, profusely begging for his life, and pissing his pants.
The crowd notices that Grim spouted nothing but nihilism but was afraid to die, and they angrily disperse. With Grim crying, Mr. Boss manages to calm him down. He tells Grim that if it weren’t for his plans, he never would’ve snapped with jealousy and tried to kill them. This moment of recognition and knowing that they successfully made someone snap makes Grim and Gnarly smile. Grim and Gnarly are finally happy, only to be killed by the Renaissance Men Charlie teased at the beginning of the episode.
Were Grim and Gnarly right? Well, they were probably about as right as the average Twitter user’s philosophies on life and nihilism. Their negativity was all a performance and everyone around them ate it up. Much like how most artists cash in on our culture’s celebration of extremism, the weaponizing of nihilism will become our greatest danger.
Smiling Friends never once fell into nihilism even when the episodes turn dour. The show has a level of optimism and energy that is sorely lacking in most adult animation these days. As the celebration of nihilism goes on, Smiling Friends sends the important and integral moral that it’s important to smile while never hiding your true feelings. In an era where nihilism and extremity feel so popular, Smiling Friends never falls into that trend and remains unabashedly happy and hopeful. This is what I want most from adult animation. To cast aside our apathy and look for a brighter future. To find humanity, to find our empathy. Only then will we be able to smile.