BOARDWALK EMPIRE. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

HBO, SO FOND of telling us it's "not television," has a new TV series premiering on Sunday called "Boardwalk Empire."

Maybe you've heard of it.

Set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and loosely based on Nelson Johnson's history of the resort town, it's a show whose buzz started even before the first plank went in on the boardwalk-to-nowhere set in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will stand in for the Jersey Shore resort for the next 12 episodes.

From Martin Scorsese, who directed the 70-minute pilot and Terence Winter ("The Sopranos"), who wrote it, "Boardwalk Empire" has been the glittering light at the end of HBO's tunnel for so long now that you might wonder if it - or any other show - could possibly live up to the hype.

Amazingly, it does.

Not because it's the next "Sopranos" or the next anything else, but because like the city it portrays, "Empire" never forgets that people are coming to it for a good time, not just lavish decor.

Or even well-choreographed violence.

Though the decor - and the costumes - are lavish. And when people get shot, as they sometimes will, there will be a Scorsese-ish look and feel to those scenes that may prompt film buffs to hit replay.

Still, you can pile on all the period details you want, but it's Winter's script, which spins stories out of people long dead and others who never lived, and Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a fictionalized version of longtime Atlantic City boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, that breathe life into "Boardwalk Empire."

Given that Nelson Johnson describes the real Nucky as 6-foot-4 and "ruggedly handsome," casting Buscemi isn't just against the grain in a medium where even Henry VIII is expected to look like an underwear model, it's genius.

There are few things more entertaining than watching a character actor transform himself into a convincing leading man, and Buscemi, whose Nucky can be as charming or chilly as the situation warrants but who never seems to lose a sense of comic timing, sneaks into the role so insidiously that it wasn't until about five episodes in that I realized I'd developed a slight crush on the guy.

Some of the credit certainly belongs to Kelly Macdonald, who plays a feisty and surprisingly well-read Irish immigrant (and temperance advocate) whom Nucky first meets when she's pregnant and whose interactions with the Atlantic City boss bring out a side of him that's not on display in his dealings with his mistress, Lucy Danziger (Paz de la Huerta), much less with mobsters Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and "Lucky" Luciano (Vincent Piazza).

Certainly not with his protege Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a restless sort who seems destined to play Christopher Moltisanti to Nucky's Tony Soprano.

Comparisons to "The Sopranos" are inevitable, given the project's pedigree, its setting and all those mobsters, but fans of "Deadwood" and "The Wire" may also recognize something of those shows in "Empire's" focus on the workings of Atlantic City at a turning point in its history.

Nucky, whose corruption was organized but might barely have been recognized as criminal in the years before Prohibition, grabs at the opportunities presented by the outlawing of liquor without completely understanding what kind of trouble comes along with them.

He's merely a man who wants to do well for himself and for the city he clearly loves.

Ever the politician, he's seen kissing up to women - whom he's farsighted enough to see as future voters - at a celebratory temperance meeting before running off to drink with his cronies.

After toasting "those beautiful, ignorant bastards" in Congress who passed the Volstead Act, which made possible the enforcement of the 18th Amendment, he adds, "Rest assured that dry though the country may be, I am in the midst of concluding arrangements that will keep Atlantic City wet as a mermaid's [HBO word here]. . . . It'll be like Prohibition never happened, but for one thing: Prices will increase twentyfold."

You can't make omelets that expensive without breaking some eggs - and heads - and Nucky, while no stranger to violence or the ordering of violence, is about to learn some hard lessons about the things that can and can't be controlled in a volatile black-market economy.

But given that the law he's flouting is one that was eventually repealed, and that the opposition is largely represented by an almost comically driven IRS agent named Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), you'd have to be a pretty determined teetotaler not to be rooting at least a little for Nucky, for his idiosyncratic approach to romance and for the ultimate success of "Boardwalk Empire." *

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