When the BBC’s much-anticipated gangster thriller McMafia hit the small screens in January, it was met with a lukewarm response. But critics missed perhaps its greatest achievement: it made us realise just how good Gomorrah is.

If McMafia is a sophisticated, polished English crime drama, Gomorrah is its loud, gritty Italian cousin. The two series undoubtedly have the same pedigree – they’re based on non-fiction books by Misha Glenny and Roberto Saviano respectively – but their similarities end there. While McMafia whisks us around the glamorous world of global financial crime, Gomorrah plunges us into the dirty, harsh reality of suburban Naples.

A quick note for the uninitiated: The series follows a mercilessly violent Neapolitan criminal group headed by the Savastano family as it fights for control over the drug-riddled streets. They’re part of the Camorra (or “The System”), a centuries-old criminal nexus with untold power and impunity in the southern Italian city.

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But internal tensions mount and the Savastano clan is thrown into internecine violence. At the end of the second season the increasingly unstable patriarch Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) is killed – shot on the orders of his son Genny (Salvatore Esposito).

It’s here that Season 3 picks up. Don Pietro lies in a pool of blood outside his wife’s ostentatious tomb. Ciro di Marzio (Marco D’Amore), the rebellious underling who has teamed up with Genny, stands over him with the smoking gun. The entire power structure has been turned on its head, and it’s an unsettling moment.

Initially, Gomorrah seems to have changed tack completely. In the wake of the killing, Ciro is sent to Bulgaria to oversee a human-trafficking operation. It’s a far cry from drug dealing in the dirty Brutalist tower blocks of Secondigliano, and with an entire episode devoted to this digression, you wonder if the show has lost its focus.

But soon enough we’re back in Naples, and Genny is clashing with his father-in-law Giuseppe Avitabile (Gianfranco Gallo). Unsurprising, seeing as Genny had him imprisoned and is desperately trying to steal his vast fortune. Alliances are always short-lived in this world, and not even marriage can engender trust.

But Don Avitabile takes things one step further, and kidnaps his own daughter Azzurra (Ivana Lotito) and his baby grandson, while Genny starts to adopt the crazed expression of his father Don Pietro. It’s a particularly bleak turn of events, even for Gomorrah’s standards.

Far from rehashing the same old story, though, the world of Gomorrah is developing, and there’s a host of new faces to pump energy into proceedings. Genny has formed a new alliance with Enzo (Arturo Muselli) and his crew. With designer beards and all-black attire, the newbies look more like hipster coffee shop baristas than gangsters, but Ciro soon moulds them to become hardened killers, much like he did with Genny.

This new partnership takes us out of the gloomy suburbs and into unchartered territory. Enzo, known as “Blue Blood”, is determined to take over Forcella, a smart area of central Naples run by a group of elders called the Confederates. The bearded thugs are pulled into The System, and an intergenerational war breaks out.

We’re also introduced to Valerio, an incongruously well-dressed accountant who becomes sucked into the criminal world to which he so clearly doesn’t belong. Others frequently comment on his upper-class accent, and Enzo’s gang nickname him “Vocabulary”. It’s a joke that’s somewhat lost on English-speaking viewers, but his character is a refreshing change and demonstrates the extent of the Camorra’s hold on Neapolitans.

Most striking in this third series, though, is the development of Patrizia (Christiana Dell’Anna). From her humble beginnings as messenger for Don Pietro, she rises through the ranks to become a lynchpin of operations, a trump card capable of tipping the balance of power. Intelligent, reserved and enigmatic, Patrizia mediates between Genny and the perennial Donna Annalisa (Christina Donadio) with such cunning that it’s almost impossible to tell whose side she’s on.

Alliances crumble, wars are fought and then seemingly resolved, and the series ends with a characteristically shocking showdown on a yacht. Neapolitan gang culture is a perpetually violent game where players come and go but the house always wins.

And yet Gomorrah never bores. Its realism is arresting and its characters, albeit it evil, are strangely sympathetic. Combined with a generous dose of drama and action, it succeeds in doing what McMafia failed to do: gripping the viewer. The Naples of Gomorrah is dirty, dangerous and beautiful in equal measure – and so is the show.

★★★★★

Gomorrah is available now as a box set on Sky Atlantic.