Last week on Friends, the NBC situation comedy that has launched a thousand magazine covers, the star-crossed friendship between the cute nebbish Ross (David Schwimmer) and the adorable Jewish-American princess Rachel ( Jennifer Aniston) finally erupted into romance after almost two seasons of waiting. First, Ross loved Rachel, but Rachel had just fled from marriage with a suburban dentist and was more inclined to quickie affairs with Italian hunks who barely spoke English. Next, Rachel loved Ross, but Ross had given up on her and fallen for somebody else.

Ever since Moonlighting and Cheers thought it up simultaneously in the early 1980s, the most prevalent romantic arrangement on American television has been unfulfilled, unconsummated love. There have been literally dozens of sitcorns in which the lead characters are clearly wild for each other but never go to bed, and the plot device has turned up on literally every ensemble TV drama in the past 10 years. There have been more uncoupled couples on television than married couples. There have been more longing glances exchanged than deep-throated kisses. There has been more jealousy expressed when one of the two participants in these unfulfilled romances decides to date somebody else.

What does it all mean? Part of the answer comes from daytime soap operas, which feature a host of characters who come together and spin apart over a great many years. Soap operas have the most loyal audience in television, and the key to sustaining a soap opera, said Claire Labine, one of the form's leading lights, was to follow this simple formula: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait."

But there is far more to it than this. It's no accident that the unconsummated romance made its debut around the time that AIDS became a national obsession. The AIDS scare pulled the American elites out of their two- decade-long debauch. They discovered that sex was not simply a pleasure, an itch satisfied by a quick scratch, but something more powerful and mysterious. "Time to murder and create," T. S. Eliot said. Although he was talking about art, not sex, this fairly well describes the elite opinion of casual sex in the aftermath of AIDS, particularly in the arts, where a disproportionate number of homosexuals have always found a home.

But that was not all. The arts community may have had its consciousness raised by AIDS, but the signs were everywhere that free and easy sex was no longer culturally viable. What would have seemed like playful foreplay in the age of Playboy became date rape. Sexualized images of adolescents like Brooke Shields stopped being cute and provocative and became pornographic instead. Woody Allen had an affair with a 17-year-old girl on screen in $ IManhattan in 1979 and nobody said boo; in 1993 he had a real-life affair with his 19-year-old stepdaughter and the world went mad.

The assumptions that animated the sexual revolution -- repression is bad, sel f-expression is good, and it's all just so natural -- fell very quickly by the wayside. Casual sex became tawdry. And what has replaced it, on television at l east, is something weirdly poetic: a yearning for the beloved; the idea that love must be earned over time, with a lot of suffering (and banter).

No, the chivalric age has not returned to us through the agency of the television networks. The fact is that the sexual messages on these shows are bizarrely muddled; they are utterly, completely obsessed with sex. Friends,$ N for example, is riddled with breathtakingly crude innuendo, and a lot of talk that is practically explicit. You might think its writers were 13-year- old boys surfing the Internet for naked pictures of Teri Hatcher, and the same can be said for most of the other programs on which romance interruptus is a regular feature.

And yet the mixed messages are maybe not so mixed after all. There is precious little joy and enthusiasm when these characters talk dirty; instead, their sex-talk is riven with anxiety, as though a cruel Providence is forcing them to undergo all manner of trial and tribulation.

There is no better example of this than Seinfeld, surely the most sexually explicit program ever to air on national television. Its four characters are promiscuous in a 1970s way, but the show's lesson (if there is one) is unmistakable: Don't live like these people. They are miserable, unhappy, selfish thirtysomethings incapable of honest emotion. If it weren't for all the talk of contraceptive sponges and masturbation, Seinfeld could be shown to a class of 14-year-olds at a Christian academy as a depiction of the soulless Hell premarital sex might plunge them into.

Of course, Seinfeld is funny, as is Friends. But when it comes to sex and romance, it puts me in mind of the great saying of Mel Brooks's 2,000- year-old man: "To me, tragedy is, if I'll cut my finger. That's tragedy. It bleeds, and I'll cry, and I'll run around, and go into Mount Sinai for a day and a half. I'm very nervous about it. But to me, come- dy is if you fall into an open sewer and die. What do I care? That's comedy! My finger is important."

By John Podhoretz

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