The opening shot of “La Fortuna” is a slow pan from the vast, starry night sky down to Stanley Tucci — as venture capitalist explorer Frank Wild — standing on the deck of a boat and smoking, one eye up to a sextant. For those precious seconds, it’s the greatest TV show this (or possibly any other) year.
Add on the fact that Frank’s boat is in search of a vast, lost treasure on a sunken Spanish frigate not seen for two centuries and “La Fortuna” gets off to a rip-roaring start. Atlantis, Frank’s company designed to find underseas goodies and keep them in private control, holds a press conference on dry land to announce their success. That, in turn, kicks off a continent-spanning struggle to understand who the ship that gives this AMC+ series its name really belongs to.
Key in answering that international conundrum is Alex Ventura (Álvaro Mel), a brand new hire in the office of Spain’s culture minister. Getting over a few initial hurdles and proving his worth to some well-placed people, he’s soon put on an unofficial bare bones task force to look into whether or not Frank’s haul was an ill-gotten gain. Alex’s partner in this fact-finding mission is Lucia Vallarta (Ana Polvorosa), a fiery advocate for cultural preservation who also sees their work as a political necessity in addition to a logistical one. As the pair encounter mounting evidence that Frank’s efforts were not as well-intentioned as he might be saying publicly, they turn to expert maritime lawyer Jonas Pierce (Clarke Peters) to help guide some potential legal action.
The further that “La Fortuna” gets into its season, though, it starts to collect genre streaks like the Atlantis robot dredging coins from the surface of the wreck. Director Alejandro Amenábar (who co-adapted the script with Alejandro Hernández from the graphic novel “The Treasure of the Black Swan”) has a solid enough eye for putting all of these disparate threads in motion. It’s just making them all cohere into a story not pulled apart by each sudden turn that soon becomes an issue. The series works best when it lands these new story angles: workplace flirting, bureaucratic jockeying, and even the few early-19th century glimpses of La Fortuna in a flashback. Whenever these start to falter, though, “La Fortuna” gets burdened with too many emotional threads to weave together in a single season.
The show certainly isn’t overstuffing its runtime due to lack of a compelling hook. A young aspiring diplomat crashing head-on into the idea of what it means to serve national interest and the public good at the same time is a wide enough foundation. Mel does an effective job of charting Alex’s evolution from a naive, eager-to-please glorified intern into someone with enough confidence to push back against higher-level government ministers and even the military. (“La Fortuna” doesn’t ignore the geopolitical issues at play in this struggle over the treasure, invoking both the uneasy Gibraltar/Spain relationship and America’s standing on the global stage.)
There’s a disconnect here between wanting to tap into some massive global controversies while also being agreeable enough to verge on treacly. The ship as an allegory for something to be rescued or seized becomes something that “La Fortuna” ties itself in knots trying to explain what that means for each person. The additional sprawl that comes with the historical context of Anglo-Spanish War makes for a handsome sea showdown setpiece, but it only adds to the feeling that this is a show made of component parts that don’t all mesh in the same project.
Those flashbacks also point to a show with a fuzzy, elastic relationship to time. With all the tragic backstory and creeping paranoia ground to cover, “La Fortuna” rarely has the chance to sit with the effort this group puts in to counterbalance Frank’s freewheeling schemes. Months pass in a flash, making it all the easier to pick up and discard dangling story ideas that have served their plot purposes. The ensemble of “La Fortuna” isn’t an unwieldy size. It’s more that making all these tonal switches often leaves these episodes feeling either disjointed or padded. Episode 4 is the show’s high point, almost entirely by virtue of being the most focused and steady.
Frank is largely gone from that hour, but his ongoing bureaucratic chess match makes for some compelling TV when “La Fortuna” does happens to be in that mode. The character is an easy avatar for an increasingly privatized world, where decisions are left to those with the resources to overpower entire countries. Tucci adds a little extra pathos to Frank, keeping him from being the cartoonish villain well on his way to building a war chest of McDuckian proportions. The cat-and-mouse game between him and the group led by Alex and Lucia (Mel and Polvorosa make a charming, effortlessly easy on-screen pair) is another one of the “La Fortuna” ideas that works when it’s present, but gets lost under the show’s other extraneous business.
With all the inherent intrigue that shipwrecks have, it verges on frustrating when “La Fortuna” gets sidetracked by conspiracy plots and shadowy corruption. Most of the show’s most dramatic and satisfying turns happen out in the open. So “La Fortuna” remains a fun ride, so long as its compass is pointed in the right direction.
The first two episodes of “La Fortuna” are now available to stream on AMC+. New episodes will be available on Thursdays through February 17.