Brenda’s velvet hats will always have a place in my heart, but the moment that sticks most firmly in my mind from Beverly Hills, 90210 is Cindy Walsh (Carol Potter) making Brandon spray-paint their dying Christmas tree green as she grizzles about missing out on a white Christmas. “It’s 90 degrees here," she yells down the phone at her mom in Minnesota, "NINE-OH.” Viewed from the distance of 30 years, it is a profound statement on the fragility of time and place, on our fleeting lives as mothers in boxy men’s dress shirts. Tomorrow, we will all be brown parking-lot Christmas trees, not long for this world. What other secrets are held in the enigma that was Cindy Walsh? Many. Do you remember the time she almost had an affair with the sexy photographer ex-boyfriend? Of course you don’t. You were too busy worrying about Kelly’s friend’s shoplifting habit.
When that ludicrous saxophone intro music first hit screens in 1990, 90210 was a show about the excitement of leaving boring Minneapolis, Minnesota, for Beverly Hills, California, and putting your adolescence on speed. The stars of this tale were twins Brenda (Shannon Doherty) and Brandon (Jason Priestley), uprooted so their dad could do more, bigger work in his suspenders, and steered gently through each week’s minefields (Kelly’s mom doing cocaine at the mother-daughter fashion show, Brenda almost sleeping with a 25-year-old guy in his platform bed, Dylan (Luke Perry) being sexual napalm) by their power-walking mom in her Minnesota Vikings tee. Cindy was the moral heart of the show, but often relegated to the supporting parent. "I noticed that when [the Walshes] had family discussions, I didn’t really participate much, Jim would be the spokesperson for the family," Carol Potter, the actress behind Cindy, tells Romper by phone.
She's right. On rewatching, I am shocked not only by how many semi-undressed bathroom scenes Brenda and Brandon share, but also by the way the show glosses over the experience of Cindy, one of television's very best moms.
From the almost death of a drunk surfer girl to the arrival of Dylan on his motorcycle to Brandon's very bad history test, Cindy is a constant support, always putting a positive face on things in her prairie skirts, ginormous safari shorts, and permed bob. "Tiffany, I know I'm not your mother," she counsels one of the boatloads of de-facto parentless kids on 90210, "but I think you should talk to someone about this."
At the same time, Potter had to campaign for her character to do more than just tend the Walsh flower beds. The network was opposed to letting her get a job, so Potter pitched somewhere around 30 different storylines to push her character along. "I [recently] had lunch with one of the writers, and she said, 'I realized there wasn’t that much for the parents to say, so we gave it all to Jim,'" Potter says. "That was a challenging dynamic to say the least."
...and it's almost enough to make you forget that Cindy has no friends of her own there, other than the Spanish-speaking maid, Anna, who just started showing up in Episode 3.
In the meantime, Cindy was often just parked at home, waiting for one of her kids (or the other kids) to require crisis intervention.
The lack of parents in 90210 is really something: Steve's famous actress mom, who allowed a cubic television to raise him, reveals in Season 2 that he is adopted; Dylan lives in a hotel when he is first introduced, abandoned by his crooked dad to the piles of illicit money he had made; Kelly's mom has a glamorous cocaine and vodka problem and fierce cropped hairdo that screams "insecure attachment." Andrea's parents I can't remember, but she is a child of the San Fernando valley, and therefore also estranged in some sense. Dylan's dad literally explodes in one episode.
Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Dylan (oh, Dylan) are welcomed into the Walsh household by Cindy and Jim as honorary children, grateful for her down-to-earth charm and daggy wardrobe and it's almost enough to make you forget that Cindy has no friends of her own there, other than the Spanish-speaking maid, Anna, who just started showing up in Episode 3.
"You know, it's been hard for me, too," Cindy says to Brenda in a rare outburst, "I don't have my friends here. At least Anna is someone I can talk with — maybe not with."
The moment has an unexpected parallel to Potter's life. Two years before she was signed to 90210, she lost her husband to lung cancer.
"It was three months after my son was born. We were very happy, and then this happened," she recalls. "I had a great housekeeper who I had just hired, and was looking up 'cancer' in my Spanish-English dictionary suddenly."
The housekeeper was a crucial source of support, alongside Potter's sister-in-law, who stayed over at night to watch the baby while Potter was in the hospital.
The parallels go further: Cindy is permitted by the writers to get a Master's degree in counseling, much like Potter, who today runs her own psychotherapy practice in Culver City, California, but laughs that cast members "never" asked her for advice in real life.
Cindy spends most of her time on the show telling Brenda that rich people aren't better (decades ahead of Piketti!) while pinning her hair back with banana clips, but the topic of how Jim and Cindy went from being humble Minnesotans to the 1 percent in L.A. is never really explored. We are asked to accept that the moral heart of the show does not need or seek out wealth, even as her children attend a school with its own valet service.
As the first season of 90210 progresses, everyone is offered a shot at love, and Cindy is the one left without a great, new hope.
Does anyone care that Cindy has left her entire world behind in Minnesota? Not Jim, particularly. He works late nights, returning home just in time to put the moves on her under their Laura Ashley quilt. When she asks him to just talk to her for a bit before jumping her bones ("I need intimacy"), he tells her forget it and gets back out of bed in his old-man pajamas to go do more work. Watching this in 2019, my jaw hit the watercolor throw pillows. This in the same season 16-year-old Brenda spends an episode counseling a date-rape victim over the phone at her volunteering gig. The universe is wonky indeed.
As the first season of 90210 progresses, everyone is offered a shot at love, and Cindy is the one left without a great, new hope. She furiously exits The Kiss in her station wagon pursued by the twins — who have followed her in their car — in the storyline Potter finds most important to her character: "I think we all entertain this wondering about the many paths, and what would have been possible if we did A instead B."
And then, just as Cindy has replanted the entire garden and reestablished herself, Jim decides they are going back to Minnesota. WTH, Jim!
How much everyone missed while focusing on the burgeoning love of Brenda and Dylan. How many questions about Cindy went unanswered in the show’s 10 seasons: For one, what possessed her to name her twins Brenda and Brandon it's the same name don't try and tell me differently. How come she stopped at two children? What was it like to have a 16-year-old son moving through her house with the face and jawline of a 30-year-old? How come she never screamed out loud at being ditched into a pretentious nightmare of a suburb with no job and no friends, just so her husband could make more money doing whatever it was he did in those terrible work suits?
Given the opportunity to talk to my favorite TV mom, who counseled Brenda and Brandon through several lifetimes worth of drama, I want to know what her grand scheme of life is. I want the Cindy Walsh treatment for my own life. So I ask her that: what is the meaning of life?
"Life is about how you deal with what happens to you. It’s less about what happens than how you deal with it. And there’s only so much we can control," Potter says.
In her own case, being widowed with an infant was a situation she took day by day.
"I think having this baby was such a blessing because he didn’t know what was going on, and he was so fully in the moment just being himself and chortling when he was happy and acting upset when he was upset," she says.
And her mom-slash-therapist advice on parenting? "Talk and listen, just really share you life with your kids — when they ask."
Brenda and Brandon could have stood to ask their mom about her inner life on the show, but that's the rub with being a parent. "You were the one who wanted them," Potter says. And suddenly I get it: when you become a parent, you are necessarily stepping into a supporting role.
Thirty years on from the premiere of 90210, Cindy Walsh and those pastel florals are far behind her, but "you know," Potter says, "there’s still lots of life to be had."
They made endless sandwiches and kept us occupied after school, but, like our own mothers, we simply did not see them until we became moms ourselves. Now that we’re dishing up Concerned Faces to our own kids, we're looking back at their patented life advice and appreciating how they have changed after seven decades on the small screen: these are The TV Moms Who Raised Us.