‘Smiling Friends’ Season 2 Review: Adult Swim’s Animated Darling Doubles Down on the Weird and Wonderful

The weird and wonderful tend to go hand-in-hand. The world, over the years, has taught us that. But if you need another example of that truth, look no further than Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel’s animated delight “Smiling Friends.” This Adult Swim favorite was initially enticing when it premiered in 2022 because of its off-kilter rules, personalities and antics — thankfully, none of that has changed as the series embarks on its highly-anticipated second season.

The pitch perfect set of bite-sized 10-minute episodes naturally expands on the bizarre world the first season established and doubles down on its bold, brash and smart dark humor. In fact, the first five episodes available for review are just as hilarious and freaky as the first season, and that says a lot.

“Smiling Friends” follows the work lives of Pim and Charlie, two pink and yellow creatures who spend their days making people smile as part of the — you guessed it — Smiling Friends, a literal workplace that exists to boost spirits. Each episode sees the polar opposite pair take on other people’s troubles, worries and everything in between, through chaotic plans and even more chaotic results.

This season, the show branches out into early Playstation nostalgia, politics, side quests, complicated love and family dysfunction — just to name a few of the themes explored — with the twisted comedy, grime, gross-outs and horror elements done differently than last season, yet still in the show’s distinct voice. “Smiling Friends” does an excellent job of weaving in the tone and other key elements it’s become known for into a new set of uncanny buddy comedy disasters. For example, the best character from Season 1 (take one guess who) returns in an appearance fit for both his psychopathy and our modern world.

Alongside that cameo, the season continues to highlight the utterly insane cast of supporting characters that shape the world of the show, including giving an entire adventure episode to one of the minor Smiling Friends himself, Allan. “Smiling Friends” does a lot of branching out in Season 2, it feels satisfying to watch the writing team really stretch their legs within the world they’ve created as the show settles into itself.

The animation team also branches out visually in one really effective way: by incorporating old animation styles that simultaneously feel nostalgic and new all at once. It’s been so long since we were forced to experience such pixelated low-fi imagery in our games or cartoons (hey, it was top of the line at the time!) that the pendulum has swung back around. Their use in the show brings the experimentation of its visual language — like last season’s deliciously dark reliance on horror artist Dan A. Peacock — to impressive heights. A character’s design in Episode 5 emulates the early Grand Theft Auto-esque style, complete with the choppy, forever buffering animation of the late 90s and early 2000s games. The team on this show is so dedicated to authenticity, they even made the audio from Episode 1 star Gwimbly — a PS1 style game protagonist — period accurate, booming, crunching and coming to a deafening head similarly to the subpar blown-out audio experiences of the games of yore.

Gwimbly in the Season 2 premiere of “Smiling Friends.” (Adult Swim)

These two character design choices are great examples of why the specificity of “Smiling Friends” will forever be the show’s greatest strength. These are smart, inspired decisions that show an overwhelming attention to detail, something that is, frankly, around every corner and in every shot on this show. But it’s because of the show’s specific brand of weirdness that keeps its audience coming back for another 10-minute stint each time. The unique character design is just one element in a sea of them: inspired and ridiculous writing filled with off-putting and riotous jokes of a particular sense of humor, hilarious and distinct voice acting, crisp and quirky animation.

Overall, even if the series is too weird, too wild, too specifically nutty for you, it’s hard to say that the series doesn’t have a strong, four-dimensional identity that is rooted in confident creativity. That creativity has spilled over generously into Season 2, and fans will be happy to find that the heart of the series is still firmly in place.

Ultimately, this show has, from the beginning, been about seeing the two sides of the world, the grim and grotesque alongside the bright and beautiful. The pilot episode of the series took that concept literally, and there’s another episode that explores the idea in Season 2, a double down that confirms the overall series’ core function and power lies in that notion. It’s hard, in our harsh world, to see the good in humanity and the world around us. Much like in Season 1, “Smiling Friends” Season 2 is here to expertly channel that complicated state in all of its unsettling yet poignant glory — and after two long years of waiting, thank God it’s finally here.

“Smiling Friends” Season 2 premieres Sunday, May 12, on Adult Swim. Episodes are available to stream on Max.

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