Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi in a scene of "Boardwalk...

Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi in a scene of "Boardwalk Empire." The HBO series has been nominated for an Emmy award in the best drama category. Credit: HBO

THE SHOW "Boardwalk Empire"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

CATCHING UP Atlantic City bootleg boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) sidesteps certain conviction by marrying Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), who then can't testify against him. Brother Eli (Shea Whigham), after conspiring with Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) to have his own brother killed, is sent to prison; Jimmy is later shot dead by Nucky. With some rivals swept aside, Nucky has big plans, including the building of new roads from Philadelphia, but he had signed his assets over to Margaret before the trial. She gives the land to the Catholic Church, and -- yes -- their marriage is rocky.

WHAT SUNDAY'S ABOUT King Tut plays a starring role -- in absentia. Dead 3,000 years earlier, his tomb had been discovered (by Howard Carter) in 1922, and its rakish opulence inspires a whole new age -- the Jazz Age. Nucky throws a 1922 New Year's Eve party that Tut would admire. Newly empowered, and enriched, the undisputed king of the Atlantic City rackets can easily afford it.

But a body is discovered on a remote stretch of road in a nearby beach community. Who killed the man? And why?

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the bootleg trade has been split into territories, controlled by Dean O'Banion (Arron Shiver) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham). Former FBI agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who has fled to Chicago, has a new job as a door-to-door salesman, but fate has another plan for him. Back in New York, Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) forges a closer alliance with Nucky, which doesn't sit well with Brooklyn gangster Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), new to the show this season.

MY SAY As every memorable gangster drama has shown us from the '30s on, every mobster protagonist needs an antagonist who's even more vicious and trigger-happy. Nucky gets that (and some) in Cannavale's Rosetti. Gyp's cold eyes are like a pair of leaden buckshot, and when he smiles his mouth curls ever so slightly and you expect to see a pair of glinting fangs. Cannavale is excellent here, but try not to remember some of his old TV roles, like the ones on "Cupid" or "Will & Grace" -- that'll just spoil the effect.

The rest of the opener is excellent, too, and even for "Boardwalk Empire" almost startlingly vivid in period details. The illusion of a cold winter's New Year Eve in 1922 is flawless. The illusion of Buscemi playing a ruthless mobster is still a little less so. He still seems too nice, too quirky (or maybe I'm the one having trouble forgetting old roles, like Lenny Wosniak from "30 Rock.") Gyp, in fact, has the best line for him: "A breadstick in a bow tie." Nucky established his killer creds in last season's finale, and you can be certain he'll reinforce them Sunday. Nucky -- and Buscemi -- are finally getting more harrowing.

BOTTOM LINE Fan favorite Jimmy went way too soon, but at least Sunday feels like compensation -- a re-energized and immensely entertaining start to the third season.


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