Asexuality could be a setup for jokes on a comedy show, sort of like being gay was once a standard punch line in a half-hour sitcom a decade ago. And on the USA series Sirens, about a ragtag team of emergency medical technicians in Chicago, the sexuality of Voodoo -- a character best described as kooky -- could have easily been written for laughs.
But the asexual emergency medical technician with a penchant for morbid tchotchkes is more than just her sexual identity. In fact, Kelly O'Sullivan, who plays Voodoo on the show, says asexuality has allowed her character to exist beyond the standard "cute female love interest" role on so many comedy shows.
"So often, women characters are defined by their relationship to men, and Voodoo is allowed to be totally unique -- she's not defined by any relationship to a man. She's really defined by her relationship with her friends and what she thinks of herself, and it was just really funny too," she says. "She's a character who's allowed to be kooky and delightfully weird and completely accepted for her friends for that."
And the key is that Valentina "Voodoo" Dunacci is one character in an ensemble where everyone is a little bit odd.
As O'Sullivan says, she wasn't told to "act more asexually," once she learned her character was asexual during her audition. Instead she credits the writers with having a "a three-dimensional vision" of her character.
"We've never once treated Voodoo's asexuality as a punch line," O'Sullivan says. "And everyone around her is really supportive for it. She's not ostracized for it."
Executive producers Denis Leary and Bob Fisher adapted Sirens from a British series. Fisher says he and other writers knew they'd have the core four characters from the British show: Brian, Johnny, and Hank, a gay EMT, in addition to Theresa, who is a police officer and Johnny's girlfriend. From there, it was a question of how to flesh out the rest of the EMT crew in a way that was more interesting than what a viewer could expect from a typical show.
"We were talking about people we knew, and several of us had known people who identified as asexual," he says. "And I'll tell you it appealed to us because in workplace comedies, there's always a will-they-or-won't-they trope, and we thought that added an interesting spin to it."
In researching the role, the writers and O'Sullivan found that asexuality in itself is a complex spectrum. O'Sullivan's character dates and says she masturbates, but sex? "Blech," Voodoo quipped to Brian in an early episode. But as their relationship grew, her emotions grew. Sex was still essentially off the table, but as in any other relationship, her feelings toward Brian evolved and even left her feeling conflicted after they called things off. As Voodoo's story continued, O'Sullivan says she began to hear positive feedback from asexual viewers and fans.
As O'Sullivan notes, Brian and Voodoo's relationship was refreshing for television, since Brian never tried to change her sexuality. He just accepted it at face value. She says the groundwork for that sort of respect was established when "Brian delivers that whole monologue in the beginning of that first season, and he says, 'I don't care if we ever have sex. I just want to be around you.'"
If the writers had tried to get Brian to change her, or if he somehow succeeded, it may have thrown viewers for a terrible loop, O'Sullivan says. "There's never anything that points to, 'Well, if we just wait this out one day ... she'll change her ways. She'll start wanting to have sex.' And that was always part of the discussion: How do we keep the integrity of this character? How do we not betray a character we worked really hard to set up."
Fisher says the show's first aim is to be funny. But beyond that, the cast and crew tries to celebrate diversity while avoiding after-school special territory. In comedy, Fisher says, it would be an easier joke to not be respectful of the diversity of the characters.
"But I think we've done a really good job, trying to represent more races, and genders, and sexualities -- we try hard," he says. "It's important. In one of the episodes, one of the characters, Billy, who's kind of a nut. He says something like, 'I got mad respect for self-identification.' Not all of the characters in the show are like that, but the show itself is. We'll always have mad respect for self-identification."
Sirens begins its second season Tuesday night on the USA Network.