Comes the dawn in that tidy little middle-class California housing development we’ve known for 13 years as Knots Landing, where veteran Knotster Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) has been recently reunited for what seems like the 380th time with his true but flighty love, Valene (Joan Van Ark). Now Gary is heading out the door of their ranch-style love nest, a song in his heart and a smirk on his lips, when he’s stopped by next-door neighbor Karen MacKenzie (Michele Lee).

”Gary,” she says haltingly, ”I, I just wanted to say that — well, we really missed you on the cul-de-sac, and it’s good to have you back.”

Karen was, in this recent episode, speaking for millions of Knots Landing fans — the fans who have yearned for the good old Knots days, when Gary and Val and Karen and her hubby, Mack (Kevin Dobson), would sit around a pot of strong coffee and hash out their incredibly intricate problems. These were the illnesses, deaths, infidelities, breakdowns, and bad haircuts that made Knots Landing the prime-time soap with high ratings and a low profile, the feisty underdog that nipped at the heels of Dynasty and Dallas (its purebred progenitor), and ultimately outlasted them.

But slowly, over the past couple of years, Knots has alienated much of its most faithful audience. It did this by breaking up that core group of coffee- klatchers, sending them off into silly subplots that removed them from the spotless cul-de-sac for months, and by coercing us to become involved with brigades of new characters. Some of them were easy to latch onto (such as Nicollette Sheridan’s blow-dried, sloe-eyed Paige Matheson), but many others were impossible to care about (Bruce Greenwood’s Pierce Lawton was such a cold fish as Paige’s love interest that in recent weeks the writers have turned him into a dead-eyed nut who reserves his most passionate gibber for his high- powered rifle).

With comforting presences like Karen and Mack pushed to the background, with each new cast member looking more and more like a reject from a Beverly Hills, 90210 farm team, Knots‘ ratings began to plummet. This season, the show has frequently been mired in the Nielsen mid-40s at a time when it should be besting competition like the wheezing, dazed L.A. Law (don’t even get me started on that again).

In a shrewdly calculated move, Knots co-executive producers David Jacobs and Michael Filerman decided to make a real-life soap opera out of the soap opera’s plight. Jacobs started admitting in interviews that the first seven shows of this season were ”uniformly awful,” that the series had ”introduced too many new characters who were unrelated to our core characters.” Here was a story that had everything — jealousy, neglect (a number of Knots producers and writers had abandoned the show for Jacobs’ new effort, ABC’s post-World-War- II-was-a-blast soap Homefront), and even illness (Jacobs was sidelined for nine weeks near the start of the season).

The producers shut down Knots in November to rework plot lines drastically, and Jacobs promised that the last seven episodes of this season — the shows that began when the series returned on Jan. 30 — would be crisply written shockers designed to jerk viewers back to the show.

So how has the revising of Knots been faring? Not badly at all. There’s an extremely promising new subplot that finds Valene commissioned to write a tell-all biography of William Devane’s Greg Sumner — the toothy, creepy corporate raider who, in the mists of Knots time, ruined the fortunes of Val’s beloved Gary. This is a nicely sticky situation in which to embed Val — and, given the snarky leer Sumner has been using on Val during her research interviews with him, maybe ”embed” will take on new meaning.

The series has also introduced a new sex symbol, a coldly ambitious, brunet British brat named Vanessa Hunt, a predator played by Felicity Waterman. Brought in to make Michelle Phillips’ Anne Matheson fear for her job as a radio talk-show host, Vanessa is a bit much — are all her skirts no bigger than a dish towel? — but she’s menacingly nasty in a very Knotsian way. And be sure to tune in Feb. 27, when you’ll learn which Major Character was blasted by Bruce Greenwood’s rifle — the resolution of a pre-Winter Olympics cliff-hanger that was classic Knots.

So who’d have thought, at the start of this drab season, that Knots ’92 would include such amusing suspense, or the promise of good old weekly coffee-jag sessions at Karen’s house, or the spectacle of Val and Greg on the verge of doing the wild thing? Stranger things have happened on this show, I suppose. And they’d better keep on happening, if the series is to return for a 14th season. Or pretty soon, once-and-future homebody Val will be sitting on her frayed suburban sofa stitching a new Knots motto onto a throw pillow: ”Cul-de-sac — Just a fancy word for dead end.” B

Knots Landing
  • TV Show