The eponymous main characters of Dallas & Robo, the new YouTube Red original series from Mike Roberts and adult animated comedy superproducers ShadowMachine, are not your average space cadets. They’re not the haunted cowboys of Firefly. They’re not concerned with cosmic destinies like the Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re not even the manic semi-protagonists of Rick and Morty, the show’s closest cousin. They are strictly there to fuck around and have a good time, particularly Dallas (Kat Dennings), an unconventional heroine. “She’s kind of bad,” says Dennings. “She drinks, and she’s crazy, she’s impulsive, she’s lecherous.” And she could truly give a shit about whatever space problem you’re dealing with right now.
This is apparent right from the cold open of the pilot, which sees a couple flying in the wrong side of the quadrant beset by a gang of space cannibals (sort of a cross between War Boys and Reavers, and not the last of the sci-fi references the show regularly trades in). Before they can be eaten, the spaceship equivalent of an eighteen-wheeler barrels out of nowhere and crashes through the cannibal fleet, decimating it. Who are their rescuers? What compelled them to save the day? Well, it’s just Dallas and Robo (John Cena). Literally asleep at the wheel.
It’s the first opportunity Dennings has had to flesh out an animated character to this degree, despite having dropped in on almost every animated sitcom you can name. “It’s interesting,” she says. “They have the episodes all done before you start recording the season. So that’s a luxury that, doing other types of TV, you don’t have. You do a few episode and then you don’t really know what happens next. Whereas in this, you kind of complete her whole story, and you get to see sketches… With this I had the luxury to see what she looks like. Sometimes you don’t have any idea who you’re playing.” This doesn’t just allow the character to begin the series more or less fully formed, it opens up opportunities for new character choices that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Animation becomes, in Dennings’ words, “the most freeing way of acting.”
And as a character, Dallas is somewhat uncharted territory for any actress. She nominally does for, say, Han Solo what Rick Sanchez does for Doc Brown—honing in on that character’s distinguishing element and underlining the shit out of it. The difference is that female characters in these kinds of shows a) aren’t normally the lead character (Robo and Dallas argue over who is whose sidekick, but Robo is definitely the Watson here), and b) they don’t normally get to be so roguish. “It wasn’t like when I signed up they were like ‘oh, we should give her a bigger role,’” says Dennings. “This was the show… That’s what attracted me so much—that she’s playing the role that, typically, a dude would play.” For her, the atypical character has paid off, creatively. “She is my favorite character I’ve ever played,” she adds. “Ever. In my entire career. I get so much joy from saying the things that she says.”
The supporting cast also gives Dallas & Robo the opportunity to flesh out a universe of scum and villainy. Specifically, villainy. The first two episodes introduce both Carol (Jane Lynch), a former acquaintance of Dallas’s, now the leader of the aforementioned pack of bloodthirsty cannibals, and Clancy Brown as a bounty hunter known only as The Stranger—playfully mixing and subverting Rick Deckard, Preacher’s Saint of Killers and Westworld’s Man in Black. “They’re massive fans of those genres,” Dennings says of the show’s writers and creators, “and got a lot of pleasure out of working in those little jokes and references like that.”
Plus, Dennings—a sitcom and rom-com veteran—gets a front seat to one of the most interesting Second Acts of a recent American Life, the evolution of WWE wrestler John Cena into a bona fide comedy star. “John Cena in a tiny booth is a fun thing to look at,” says Dennings. “It’s like a refrigerator in a mailbox.” Dennings and Cena’s relationship on Dallas & Robo certainly draws on their real life personas (they are physically very similar to their animated selves, notes Dennings). But both strike out in unusual directions. Dallas is pretty unhinged. The massive Robo is a sensitive soul, an artifact from an era of A.I. the universe is determined to wipe out. It just goes to show: with YouTube Red providing new platforms for TV creators to get work off the ground, everyone involved is provided the opportunity to boldly go where they haven’t gone before.
Dallas & Robo premieres on YouTube Red on May 30.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.