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How Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba Made the Most Mom-Friendly TV Set Ever

Women in charge change the game

Malcolm Venable

When audiences first met Gabrielle Union's character Syd Burnett in the 2003 blockbuster flick Bad Boys II, she was part of a couple. But when the TV adaptation of the film, now titled L.A.'s Finestand starring Union and Jessica Alba as LAPD detectives, arrives for Spectrum customers in May, Syd won't be attached to a guy -- a deliberate choice from Union that's just one of many ways the show aims to put women first. And some of the biggest efforts on this front take place behind the scenes as Union and Alba created what is possibly the most mom-friendly TV set ever.

"I think it's important we set the stage that this is a family-friendly environment and a feminist environment," said Alba, who is a mother of three. She was breastfeeding when she signed on for the role as Syd's partner, Nancy McKenna, and she decided to turn her trailer into a nursery. Then she did the same for Union, who herself had just placed an embryo with a surrogate and would soon be expecting a baby (daughter Kaavia James Union Wade, born in November).

As the head honcho for the series -- Union shepherded its creation and brought on the producers, director and Alba -- she needed a costar who was going to be on board with a new way of filming. Television and film sets can be notoriously rigid in terms of timing and scheduling; they leave little windows for real-life obligations like doctor's appointments or dentist visits, let alone childcare and other demands on working moms.

"I needed someone that was going to have my back," Union told members of the media at a visit to the L.A.'s Finest set as part of the Television Critics Association press tour. "We created what we had never seen. That's part of having full equality on sets."

Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba, L.A.'s Finest

Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba, L.A.'s Finest

Erica Parise, Erica Parise/Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum Originals

At a time when the TV industry is only beginning to actively seek more women as directors, executive producers and network shot-callers, L.A.'s Finest looks like a pioneer. Union herself brought on the executive producers. And the show's big boss, and Spectrum Originals' head of original content, Katherine Pope, is female. But wooing Alba -- creator of the Honest Company -- ended up making the actual workplace more amenable to working moms than Union could've anticipated.

Alba outfitted her trailer as nursery so she could pump breastmilk while they were shooting the pilot, and then when the show got picked up for a full season, she took it a step further, having her nanny -- who'd taught her how to bathe her baby and even herself after Alba had her first baby -- educate Union, who really needed some help. "I was never that person who babysat," said Union. "I'd mow your lawn before I babysit. When I left for the hospital I had nothing. I had my wig."

Not only did Alba hook Union up with all she didn't know she needed -- car seats, the right shampoos and more -- but she outfitted her space to be welcoming to children. "In a trailer, you only have so much space. I took out the table they have and put in a pack-and-play where the baby can sleep, but it also has a changing table." She added a low couch, since her youngest is now walking around, softened the corners of furniture, added a baby gate, and removed potentially dangerous items from child's reach.

As it happens, Alba's changes mirror what Union had in mind when thinking about the character of McKenna, herself a working mother. In thinking about the character she thought, "How does that work, being a working mom? How do you figure out what your lane is? How do you maintain a relationship while also building bridges in your family, and at work?"

Both women, Union in her mid-40s and Alba in her late 30s, are figuring it out in real time and possibly forging a path for others. They both said they're just now feeling empowered enough to institute new rules, but from the sound of it, going back isn't an option for either one of them.

"It's two female leads -- and one is black," Union said. "She is in charge, and she didn't choose someone who shrinks; she (Alba) arguably has a bigger light. It hasn't happened because we haven't been given the opportunity. It took me years to realize I had to create the opportunity. Nobody is going to give me sh--. I have to take it. And when I took it, I brought as many people with me as possible."

LA's Finest premieres May 13 on Spectrum's On Demand platform.

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