'Looking' press shot

L-R: Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff. (David Moir / HBO / April 6, 2013)

Opening scenes are tricky. In minutes, writers have to establish a show's tone, make viewers care about fictional strangers and toss the audience a hint at where things are headed over the course of eight (or 12 or 22) episodes.

For whatever reason, that's a challenge HBO shows both past and present typically ace compared to their network counterparts. Think about Amy Jellicoe's mascara-streaked meltdown on "Enlightened," the bait-and-switch gut punch that started "Six Feet Under" or Hannah Horvath getting cut off by her parents on "Girls."

"Looking" is hardly different, opening with what is a pretty revealing sequence considering it's one that doesn't actually, uh, reveal. There's something telling about the look on video-game designer Patrick's face when he sees the bearded guy who follows him into the woods. His eyes widen, and Patrick realizes what he thought he wanted to happen in this public park is actually happening.

It turns out strangers do cruise in San Francisco public parks, and Patrick has absolutely no idea how to handle it. And that seems to dawn on him even before the hirsute stranger puts a hand down Patrick's pants, leading to a hand job sure to inspire more than one LGBT studies dissertation somewhere down the road.

That sequence, as I hinted in my review of "Looking" late last week, is pretty indicative of the show's perspective. This public hand job's not about steaminess, and the awkwardness brought on by Patrick's incessant chatter isn't played up for pointed comedy the way it might have been on "Girls." (That's a comparison I'm only making so we can get it out of the way in week one.) Instead, Patrick's reaction to the whole affair establishes "Looking" as a show interested in the discrepancy between what you're looking for and what you get.

All three characters grapple with that gap in some way during "Looking for Now," most explicitly when Patrick bemoans that "Instagram filters have ruined everything, and I can't tell if this guy's hot or not."

It's unclear whether that same guy is actually Benjamin, who doesn't appear to have a lazy eye as far as I can tell. And even if he does, Benjamin's bigger problem is clearly his personality. Given his no-nonsense attitude, it's hard to imagine what about his OkCupid profile really suggested he and Patty would be a match. Because aside from his pedigree, there's not much to like about Dr. Ben, especially once he starts off a first date with an uncomfortably direct interrogation.

Under the focus of such unwavering intensity, Patrick's eventual collapse is inevitable. That the date's end stems from two obvious single-guy foibles — downing a drink and then telling a story that's clearly not first-date material — makes it far easier to be sympathetic.

Director Andrew Haigh wisely keeps the camera on Benjamin's face as Patty starts talking about his dalliance in the park, and you can see the date imploding in his expression. (Even once Patrick realizes he's misstepped, he tries admirably to get things back on track. Lots of credit is due to Jonathan Groff for those knee-jerk reactions to the landmines Patrick inadvertently triggers, and for wearing his character's crushed disappointment so wonderfully.)

If his disastrous date with Benjamin's an indication to Patrick that his expectations are unrealistic, cosmetologist Richie offers a reminder of how looking — actively looking for something specific, anyway — can be counterproductive.

On paper, Richie isn't Patrick's type, something his friend Dom wisely criticizes. And maybe because Patrick realizes his expectations haven't brought him, or because he thinks he should start looking for something else, he ends up walking into Richie's cousin's club at the episode's end.

At least for now, "Looking" is Patrick's story, and both Dom and roommate Augustin are sidelined in the pilot. Dom's failed flirtation with a junior waiter feels absurdly peripheral here, although it highlights how stagnant his life has become.

As he nears 40, he suddenly finds he has been chasing after the wrong thing although it doesn't seem like he has figured out just what goal he should be targeting just yet. At the very least, his cringe-worthy attempt to pick up his younger co-worker provides yet another example of how nuanced "Looking" is compared to "Queer as Folk." (Brian Kinney would have sealed that deal in a second.)

Augustin faces a similarly daunting uncertainty. His decision to move in with his boyfriend Frank (in, gasp, Oakland!) feels like a strong commitment, even coming as it does during aborted morning sex. But it's only seconds later that he is cringing (however facetiously) at the prospect of domestic bliss, and the threesome he subsequently initiates with a co-worker just proves how the idea of settling down often proves more attractive than the reality.

His tryst provides a nice counterpoint to Dom's failure, but it also frames Patrick's views on romance. In the wake of Patrick's ex-boyfriend's engagement, he is trying to put down roots, or at least to decide if that's something he wants to do.

But as Dom finally realizes and as Frank tries to tell an unconvinced Augustin, at some point you do need to figure out just what you want to be.