Totally Knots

Come on. You didn't think we were actually going to tell you. But this much can be said: It will involve a truck broadsiding a car, flying glass, noise, and bloodshed. It's an exciting stunt — there aren't many ways to fake a car crash — and many of the actors are awaiting the one-take-only extravaganza. The truck backs up, prepares to accelerate, and then... the clouds open. ''Cut!'' yells Ferrara. Quickly, umbrellas appear for the actors, along with people to hold them. This is not a star perk. Well, it is, but it's a perk with a purpose: Perfectly made-up and tested under the lights, these performers' faces must be preserved unsmeared. Carefully, the actors retreat to the trailers.

Meanwhile, back at the Ewing ranch, Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark, who play Gary and Valene, who have married, divorced, remarried, redivorced, and — well, not to give anything away, but check out the April 25 episode — are filming the season's final scenes on soundstages in Culver City. Van Ark, who has played the steel-spined Val since the first days of Dallas, and Shackelford, who replaced David Ackroyd as J.R.'s black-sheep brother, Gary, before Knots began its run, have become, in soap argot, a ''supercouple'' — a pair who viewers hope will surmount adversity to reach the altar. Of course, the catch-22 is that adversity is fun. And fortunately, Gary and Val haven't run out of problems.

''I can't complain,'' complains Shackelford. ''I mean, Gary spent six or seven years being led down the primrose path by one stupid broad after another. So with Val... You'd think after 13 years, at the age they are [Val is 44, Gary is 46] and the amount of bullshit they've been through, they would have learned something! They'd probably have a very comfortable life by now. But it makes for a dead story line.''

''It's a trap,'' says Van Ark. ''So they're happy — who cares? One episode of marital bliss, and people will start looking for the murders and the rapes.''

Offstage, Shackelford's sleepy-cowboy charm and Van Ark's live-wire energy seem an odd match, but working together they exude a relaxed — and obscene — camaraderie. ''I don't know how it could get any better,'' says Shackelford, walking to the set. ''She's remarkable, and I'm not blowing smoke up your ass. I'd tell you if I thought she was a pain in the ass, although sometimes she is a pain in the ass. But my best work is done with Joan.''

''You're late,'' she says, looking him over.

He glowers back. ''Is that your real hair?'' he says.

''Of course it's my hair! This is no f------ wig!'' Van Ark smacks him.

''No,'' says Shackelford. ''You've got more hair on than usual.''

''You want the real story?'' says Van Ark. ''This is the meanest son of a bitch...'' And so on.

A few soundstages away on the studio lot, Nicollette Sheridan stands on the glass-and-steel set of the Sumner Group offices. Sheridan, who plays Anne Matheson's daughter, the spoiled brat-turned-corporate climber Paige, is the youngest superstar in the core cast and wears her status as resident bombshell with disarming ease. With Knots' revolving-door cast, it's hard for a new arrival to take hold — Alec Baldwin (crazed preacher Joshua Rush) and Julie Harris (Val's mother, Lilimae) were two exceptions. But since Sheridan's 1986 debut, she has evinced enough shrewdness to make herself semi-indispensable. (No one, executive producer Jacobs will tell you, is completely indispensable.)

Sheridan moves easily through her scene, and then speeds back to the Knots offices. Even after a hard day's work, she still looks genetically engineered — not surprising, since a hard day's work is, she says, pretty easy for her. It wasn't always so.

''When I started, I was so scattered and confused,'' she says. ''The character was being pulled in six different directions at once. Finally, I decided I wasn't going to be pulled anymore. So I sat down and wrote pages of back story, full of details, until I knew who my character was. That's when I felt solid.''

But what if she gets a script and thinks, this isn't the story I wrote?

Sheridan throws back her head and issues a spectacularly theatrical laugh. ''You rewrite it!''

This season Knots has fielded an ensemble of nearly 20 characters. ''Too many,'' says Jacobs, who vows to trim the cast next year. (Watch that cliff- hanger.) Things can get a little crowded, and a little cranky. One actor earnestly refers to the ''wonderful, oh, you know, air-headed quality'' of a colleague; another, with a smile as thin as a razor blade, mentions the cast's ''bimbettes.'' ''Look, they don't all get together for slumber parties after work,'' says one insider. ''But they're pros.''

Though it has the contours of an ensemble piece, Knots is really a series of isolated dramas in different locations, a far cry from its origins as a show about four couples living on the same suburban street. ''We've gotten too far away from that,'' admits Jacobs, who says the cul-de-sac will be more visible next season.

Such self-assessment is common among Jacobs, Van Ark, Shackelford, and Lee. The veteran quartet has been around long enough to have become coolly objective about its work. Ratings have been rock solid; the show's 33rd-place ranking opposite NBC's L.A. Law is actually up a couple of notches from last season, though down from its all-time high of ninth in 1985. But with casual bluntness, each says this hasn't been a banner year: Jacobs says too many plot lines sagged at once, Lee and Shackelford justifiably felt sidelined, and Van Ark isn't sure Val's mental illness had enough impact (though she gave a touching performance even in the potentially campy scene in which Val stir-fried her kids' pet crabs). They can also enumerate the show's earlier missteps — Val's writing career, Gary's spineless period, and, says Jacobs surprisingly, the prolonged association with Dallas.

''I always hated it,'' admits the producer, who points out that Knots was conceived in 1977, before the Ewings, rejected by CBS, and later revived as a spin-off. ''It helped us in the beginning, but the shows existed on different planes. Our show has always been more middle-class, sometimes to the point of absurdity. I mean, there's never been a housekeeper in the cul-de-sac in history.'' What finally tore it was an embarrassing plot twist in which Val named her son after his late uncle, Bobby Ewing, only to find that Bobby was alive, a victim of Dallas' infamous ''dream'' season in 1986. ''After that, I said, 'No more crossover plots ever again.'''

Though Jacobs cedes day-to-day control to a team of writers, he remains attuned to the show's ups and downs. ''You can tell when a story line isn't working,'' he says, ''because we either get funny or poignant. But sooner or later, we have to get exciting.'' And when Knots is at full boil, says Van Ark, the rewards are great. ''When I'm shopping in Beverly Hills, and a young prototype L.A. Law viewer comes up to me and says, 'We have Thursday-night parties to watch your show' — well, this is a major compliment.''

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