Ross just found out his wife of four years is a lesbian and is leaving him for another woman. Rachel just left her fiance standing at the altar of the $40,000 wedding. Monica wonders why she's a "beacon for men with severe emotional problems." And Chandler feels compelled to share every detail of his dreams, which are Freudian feasts of sexual insecurities and confusion.

Meet four of the friends in NBC's "Friends," the best new sitcom of the fall. It arrives at 8:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld" -- which makes for a near perfect 90-minute programming flow of smart, sophisticated sitcoms about relationships set in New York.

"Friends" is a little younger than "Mad About You" or "Seinfeld." The six leading characters appear to be in their 20s or early 30s -- NBC and the producers are purposely vague on ages, trying not to get locked into a Generation X box.

And it's a smart marketing move. While there are "twentysomething" moments and concerns in the pilot, the overall sensibility is much the same as in NBC's two other Thursday night sitcoms.

If fans of "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld" can handle the age difference, they should feel right at home with the six as they sit around riffing on life, love, relationships, jobs and each other.

Most of the action takes place in two sites -- a coffee bar and the apartment of Monica (Courteney Cox). Cox, perhaps best known for playing Alex P. Keaton's girlfriend in "Family Ties" before appearing in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," is terrific in "Friends."

Tonight, she's at dinner with a dreamboat guy to whom she's very attracted. Just as they appear to be starting to connect, he tells her he's impotent, and the sip of tea she just took comes flying out of her mouth all over the guy.

"Sorry, I know being spit on is probably not what you need right now," she says, trying to sound supportive.

Shades of "Seinfeld," the three male friends all refer to Monica's date as "Paul, the wine guy." We never do find out what his actual name is.

Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), a space-cadet female friend, asks: "Paul, the wine guy? Paul, the wine guy? What's that mean? Does he sell it, drink or just complain a lot?"

A few moments later, in connection with absolutely nothing else, Phoebe says, 'Oooh, I just pulled out four eyelashes, that can't be good."

There are lots of moments like that.

Everyone's having their breakfast coffee at Monica's when Chandler (Matthew Perry) jumps up and says, "All right, kids, I've got to get to work and input those numbers, because if I don't, well, it doesn't make that much of a difference actually."

It's a very strong cast. Jennifer Anston ("The Edge") plays Rachel. Matt LeBlanc ("Vinnie & Bobby") plays a young actor who lives across the hall from Monica. And David Schwimmer ("NYPD Blue") plays Ross, Monica's older brother. Schwimmer and Cox are the pick of the litter.

The pilot is a little frantic and stagey. Producers Marta Kauffman and David Crane are trying to give us enough information to make us care about all six people, in 22 minutes. Next week, "Friends" calms down and it's funnier, as the parents of Monica and Ross come to visit. The conservative father is played by Elliot Gould; mom is Christina Pickles, of "St. Elsewhere" fame.

Tonight's pilot ends with Perry sharing the details of his latest dream. In this one, he's Liza Minnelli, he's playing Las Vegas, and . . .

Hey, do I look like the kind of critic who would give away the ending on his new, best TV friends?