Non-"Knots Landing" fans just don't get it.

They don't understand how much this series meant to devoted viewers over its 14-year run. (It was the second-longest-running hourlong drama in TV history, trailing only "Gunsmoke.")Through all the trials and tribulations, murders and mayhem, marriages and divorces, kidnappings, custody battles and cast changes, one thing remained the same - the characters were like friends to the show's fans.

Which is why "Knots" nuts have been looking forward to the two-part, four-hour reunion movie, "Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac," which airs Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m. on CBS/Ch. 2.

"An audience is going to return to characters that they felt they knew and that they connected with every Thursday night," said Joan Van Ark, who plays Valene Ewing. "And they want to reconnect with the people - with Karen, with Mack, with Gary, with Val, with Sumner, with all of them. They want to be with those friends again.

"And that's a really good thing. That's lucky for us."

All the regulars are back. In addition to Van Ark, the miniseries features William Devane (Greg Sumner), Kevin Dobson (Mack MacKenzie), Michele Lee (Karen MacKenzie), Donna Mills (Abby Fairgate), Ted Shackelford (Gary Ewing) and Michelle Phillips (Ann Sumner). And the whole bunch of them seemed more than pleased to return to their roles.

"We just slipped right back in. Like a glove," Phillips said. "We know the characters so well that it was fun for me to do it again."

"I think we were all very surprised about how emotional it was for us to get back together again," said Lee. "Because we genuinely liked each other. It was very easy to just look across the room and see Valene. My Valene. The first day we saw each other in the living room (set) . . . there was an unspoken, wonderful thing that happened to all of us."

Van Ark agreed, recounting her first day back on the ol' cul-de-sac (which is really in Simi Valley) when she saw the two young actors (Joseph Cousins and Emily Ann Lloyd) who return as her twins.

"Michele and I looked at each other, as we do, out there at the mailbox and welled up (with tears)," she said. "It was very emotional."

It's also a treat to see a number of the more minor characters make at least brief appearances in the miniseries. Among those dropping by are Victoria Ann-Lewis (Peggy, Mack's secretary), Carlos Cantu (Carlos), Tony Crowe (Olivia), Claudia Lonow (Diana), Pat Peterson (Michael) and even Kim Lankford (Ginger), who makes a brief-but-funny appearance 14 years after she left the original series.

There's also a cameo by Nicollette Sheridan (Paige Matheson), whose schedule precluded a longer appearance.

And Stacy Galina (Kate Whittaker) and Brian Austin Green (who played Brian Cunningham before he went on to fame in "Beverly Hills, 90210") play relatively major roles in the goings on.

And those goings on seem more than a bit familiar, if at least a bit irrelevant.

" `Knots Landing' was never about its plots," said creator/executive producer David Jacobs. "What it's really about is the people that we've seen for the last 18 or 19 years. They're dealing with the same problems they dealt with earlier, but in a different time and at a different point in their lives."

And the problems are plentiful:

- Mack is going through a mid-life crisis, exacerbated by the fact that his adopted daughter, Meg, wants to know about her real parents. (Her father, of course, is Greg Sumner - the man Mack is currently in the middle of suing.)

- Kate returns to Knots Landing with a 4-year-old daughter in tow - a little girl who looks an awful lot like Gary. (Kate and Gary had a brief affair while Val was kidnapped and presumed dead.)

- Val, having written a book based on her yearlong kidnapping ordeal, is hired to co-write the movie screenplay based on her best-seller. But when the guy she's working with turns up dead, Val is the prime suspect.

- Abby, in the midst of planning a move to Malibu, discovers she's got major tax problems. She immediately cooks up a scheme to help Sumner with one of his schemes in exchange for a million bucks.

Thrown into the mix is the return of Ann, who now fancies herself a psychic, and the love affair between Kate (who is Greg's niece) and Brian (who is Abby's son).

"Back to the Cul-de-Sac" doesn't rely so heavily on the past that first-timers won't be able to follow the plot. But what long-time fans will get that others won't is a good deal of the humor.

It helps to know who was married to whom, whether it was Greg and Abby or Greg and Ann or Gary and Abby or Gary and Val.

For instance, some of the exchanges between Val and Abby won't mean much unless you know that Val's current husband, Gary, was once stolen away from her by Abby. That Gary and Abby were married for a time before divorcing and that Gary and Val eventually remarried.

Thus, when Val learns that Abby is planning to move off the cul-de-sac, her words aren't quite sincere.

"We're going to miss you, Abby," says Val.

"You don't mean that," says Abby.

"No, I don't," says Val.

And when Abby has the gall to ask Karen and Val if they want any of her old furniture, Val can't resist asking if Abby's got a nice armoire she could have.

"Gary and I just love to lie in bed and watch TV," Val says.

"That's funny," replies Abby. "When Gary and I were in bed together that was the last thing we ever thought of."

"Back to the Cul-de-Sac" isn't up to the best of "Knots Landing." But it is better than some of the worst of the show, including the first and 13th seasons.

The biggest problem is that the writers - Ann Marcus, Lisa Seidman and Julie Sayres - try too hard to mimic the style of some of the best "Knots" writers and fall short. And, believe it or not, the four hours don't prove to be long enough for the story they've written.

After raising a number of interesting plot points, in the last few minutes of the two-parter those points are either resolved far too easily or - worse yet - they're not resolved at all.

Still, that's almost beside the point. Even casual fans of "Knots Landing" are going to enjoy seeing the cast back together again - almost as much as the cast enjoyed being back together again.

"It's really the best job in Hollywood," Shackelford said. "I mean, you get so comfortable working with everybody. . . . It was joy."

Lee admits she had a "very difficult time" when the show went off the air.

"It had to do with a lot of things outside of `Knots Landing.' It had to do with living with a family for 14 years - a way of life," she said. "Being enmeshed with a character for so long there's a lot of psychological ramifications built into that scenario. And leaving the show was leaving a group of people that I really enjoyed being with."

And most of them seem to be hoping that "Back to the Cul-de-Sac" won't be the end for "Knots Landing." (There are no plans for another reunion. CBS is waiting to see what the ratings are for this one.)

"There's life there," Devane said. "And it can go on for another decade. These are interesting characters. And I was real happy to be a part of them."

Of course, whether there's another reunion or not the show will live on, both in reruns and in the memories of its fans.

"When it did end, there was a certain relief. There was a lot less work to be done," Jacobs said. "But David Selznick once ran into Somerset Maugham after Somerset Maugham had retired as a writer . . . And Selznick asked him, `Do you miss writing?' And Maugham said, `No, but I miss the company of my characters.'

"That sort of expresses the way I feel about `Knots Landing.' . . . You never get away from it, even though it's not on the air anymore. It's still there, and it's nice to see (the characters) again."