One of the most intriguing of the explorers joining the investigation is also using the small screen to make big, albeit subtle, statements. Number "Numb3rs," CBS' sophisticated Friday-night crime drama, as one whose brush with the past has conjured up an indelible portrayal.
And that portrayal belongs to a role model of independent spirit and indie movies: At an age when many actresses are accustomed to musing out loud on memories and wondering where the years have gone, Gena Rowlands is etching memorable portrayals still; the latest is on the series' Oct. 6 edition, "Provenance," in which she portrays a Holocaust survivor painted into a corner when trying to retrieve family art stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Rowlands' Erika Hellman is a woman of pastel frailty with a fire-red roar to reclaim her heritage. And when the FBI finds its central intelligence lacking in trying to track down her family's prized Pissarro — looted by the Nazis only to land at a local art museum, where it's stolen once more — she discovers how real truths can materially change overnight into abominable abstracts.
Is Erika Hellman a woman under the influence of the inescapable — a victim of past horrors that have a painful way of shrouding the present-day with shameful shadows?
"Well," says the Emmy Award-winning, multiple-Oscar nominated Rowlands of her series' alter ego, "she leads her life in the present, but it does come as a bit of a shock to her that years after the Nazis worked the family over," the suits of the FBI are following suit, "suggesting that she may have stolen the painting herself."
Gentle Gena Rowlands as rogue, robbed of the past only to reclaim it illegally for herself?
No, this is no takedown of "Topkapi," no "Oy Spy" of the illogical. What the episode "Provenance" proves is that series TV can be seriously thoughtful and dramatically challenging — an equation that the math-professor character Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz) can appreciate and value.
But then Rowlands, whose filmic history includes "A Woman Under the Influence" and the glorious "Gloria" — just two of the 10 collaborations she triumphed in with her late husband, director John Cassavetes — has an appreciation, too, for the give-'em-hell Hellman that belies the soft sad side of the character.
It's no wonder in her wonderful performance that the war of the present has rekindled the battles of the past.
"It flares up all her memories," states the actress of the stolen moments that focus on the looted painting and the hell of the Holocaust. "You can never escape from that kind of past."
Standing Up as a Stand-In
But the woman who helped put such an unforgettable face on "Faces" — her seminal collaboration with Cassavetes — faces facts, understanding that her fictional character is, in fact, a stand-in for survivors whose blood-stained memories of the Holocaust include images of art ripped off their walls and from their hearts.
"I have been following the survivors' stories, those trying to find the art taken from them, and it touches me," she says.
As will her portrayal on "Numb3rs" this week touch others. Has she been on an educational mitzvah mission, using the art story as a frame of reference for the real battles on the outside?
She replies: "I can't imagine anyone being unaware of the subject" of looted art and survivors trying to prove their rightful ownership.
It is more than providential that "Provenance" be played out among today's headlines, and that one of the world's leading actresses should head the way in which it is depicted.
"I'd like to put one of my fists right in there," she says of striking a stance for social awareness of the situation in a rather artless world.
Rowlands regrets seeing "real survivors being pushed [around] by governments, who are waiting for them to die off and not be witnesses anymore," being given the brush-off in claims, thus making a messy problem of whose art is whose less of a sticking point.
But Hellman sticks it out and has enough punch in her to pounce on the truths — with the considerable aid of FBI Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow), whose insight and insistence pay off in reassembling the Pissarro puzzle.
No puzzle about the show's success, says fan Rowlands, with special mention for Morrow as mortar in helping the amazingly agile yet morally complex storyline come together so wonderfully.
For the "Numb3rs," but never giving a performance by the numbers: Indeed, the secondary storyline of family ties among the emotionally stretched Eppes appealed to the actress also.
"My family has meant so much," proclaims Rowlands of her late husband, as well as their children, including director Nick Cassavetes.
As she lets her talents paint a portrait of a woman whose love streams have always allowed her to flow her own way, the actress is proudly poignant in pointing to her indie work.
Rock and Rowlands — forever roiling the waters of the mainstream.
But then, maintaining an active acting schedule has provided this legend with more than an image of being a breathing, living lesson of legerdemain.
As she quips: "It's kept me off the streets."