The first several weeks of Survivor: Samoa (CBS, Thursday 8 p.m.) were dull enough to raise serious questions about whether the oldest reality franchise on network TV had any life left in it. The season began with twenty people, which is too many; and one tribe then began to win so often that viewers rarely got any sense of its internal dynamic, or even the names of most of its members. Most ominous was the singleminded focus on Russell H., an unpleasant fire hydrant-shaped Texan who spent so much time conducting psychological warfare within his own tribe that he scarcely seemed to notice it was getting decimated. This attention to colorful personalities, which began in the previous season with "Coach," has made it seem as if the producers no longer trust that the game itself can still be a draw.
But last week's merger of the two tribes, one with eight members and one with just four, resulted in the departure of Erik from the dominant faction. It's beginning to look as if Russell and his underdogs might still have a chance to turn the tables, which could be fun to watch even if it keeps him around longer. But first, he's going to have to get around the target that's now clearly on his back.
Also this week:
Monday: How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 8 p.m.): When Robin and Barney's new relationship runs into some problems, Lily takes it upon herself to try to break them up, and calls in Canadian heavyweight Alan Thicke for reinforcement. This is all part of the grand plan to make Cobie Smulders mine, although there's still the small matter of informing her that I exist.
Tuesday: Sons of Anarchy (FX, 10 p.m.): So much mayhem this week, it's going to take 90 minutes to squeeze it all in! Gemma (Katey Sagal) is forced to make a decision when the tension between Clay and Jax continues to increase, and Stahl's investigation into the finances of the club takes a new turn.
Wednesday: CMA Awards (ABC, 8 p.m.): Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley are back this year to host the 43rd annual salute to Nashville's finest. Among the performers will be George Strait, Darius Rucker, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, and the soon-to-retire Brooks & Dunn.
Friday: Law & Order (NBC, 8 p.m.): Alana de la Garza probably doesn't get enough kudos for her forceful performance as the latest L & O prosecutor babe, Connie Rubirosa. She takes center stage this week in a case that is sparked by the death of a witness in a murder trial. The resulting investigation leads to the revelation of corruption within the criminal justice system itself.
Saturday: Saturday Night Live (NBC, 11:30 p.m.): January Jones doesn't get to do much smiling while playing Betty Draper on Mad Men, so hopefully she can exercise those muscles during her hosting stint. Obnoxious pseudo-hip pitchmen the Black Eyed Peas are the musical guests/chance to take a bathroom break.
Sunday: The Prisoner (AMC, 8 p.m.): Nothing can fully replace Mad Men in the AMC lineup, but many have been looking forward to this limited-run remake of the 40-year-old cult series about a man who wakes up in a superficially ideal "village" where everyone is known by a number and all aspects of life are carefully monitored. Jim Caviezel plays Number Six, not to be confused with Tricia Helfer.