Survivor Analyst Russian Roulette: Jeff Varner

Welcome to Survivor Analyst Russian Roulette, where the authors of this site are randomly assigned contestants from the upcoming season of Survivor: Game Changers and must give an honest assessment of what to expect from them. First up: Jeff Varner.

The toughest part in analyzing how well Jeff Varner will do in the upcoming game is that it’s all kind of beside the point, isn’t it? I’m excited to see Jeff Varner the performer on my screen again, and hope he does well enough to continue providing entertainment for as long as possible, but as his Cambodia appearance proved, he really doesn’t have to do well- or even last long- to deliver.

This is a column about what to expect from him as a player, so that’s the lens through which I’ll try to judge him. But first, seriously, I hope you haven’t forgotten what a gift Jeff Varner was last time we saw him. Not only did he give tremendous confessionals, he also brought a raw humanity to the early part of the season that gave us a glimpse of how emotional the experience of coming back to the show was for the Second Chancers. This may be a little soon for another returnee season, but if it was ONLY done to get Varner back in there before he ages out, it is worth it.

The difficult thing in assessing Varner’s game potential is that there really isn’t much data. His half season of The Australian Outback was so long ago, in such a different game, with a different person (since people tend to change over the course of a decade), that it tells us nothing. Sure, he was the one person there trying to play a Hatchian-type game in a season that was largely a repudiation of it, but that still doesn’t make it a MODERN game, as Varner himself discovered about 30 minutes into his experience with an actual modern game.

At four episodes long, his Cambodia experience isn’t that instructive either. And that’s due less to its abbreviated nature and more because it was clearly the case of a player who got caught up trying to deal with the new speed of the game and burned himself out as a result. If Survivor is a marathon, Varner got caught up trying to keep pace with the rabbits (Shirin and Spencer), ruining his chances of ever playing at his own pace. But now that he’s gotten his modern Survivor sea legs under him, can he play a better game? Or does his big personality mean he’s doomed to always burn bright, but briefly?

Best Case Scenario

Jeff Varner has one major advantage that he can exploit: he seems like one of the most fun guys to talk to in the history of the show. An underrated aspect of the Survivor experience is how fucking boring it gets. Sure, it’s a paranoia-inducing battle for supremacy against other crazy people and the elements, but it’s also sitting around the same general area with the same people 24/7. So what often ends up happening is that people who are entertaining end up sticking around, even if other aspects of their personalities suggest that they should be targeted.

I think people will want to ally with Varner, because they will want to be liked by Varner. How awesome would it be to be in a conspiratorial bitch session with the king? Imagine you’re, say, Aubry and Jeff Varner pulls you aside to joke about the latest crazy Tony episode or Ozzy’s giant ego (note: I don’t know the tribe divisions, and frankly expect them to be juggled early and often anyway). Or you’re Debbie and Jeff keeps egging you on to tell crazier stories, only you can’t tell that he’s just having fun with you? You’re gonna want to keep that guy around. You’re gonna want to be on his team. It’s too much fun not to be.

And that’s the key to his potential success: being kept in majority alliances because of his social skills and general entertainment value. The last time he played, he had two disparate alliances competing for his services. Sure, a lot of that was due to (overly and overtly) aggressive pre-gaming, but the fact that everyone wanted to connect with a guy who last played a decade ago speaks volumes of his social abilities. Yes, he flamed out quickly, but that easily could’ve been more about bad swap and injury luck than overplaying.

If he can get a luckier bounce this time, he could easily build strong enough alliances to make the merge. Which would then buy him several tribals where he could skate by as a non-challenge target. It’s the end game that gets tricky, where his likability will start to draw a big target as the jury looms closer. And at that point, I don’t think he can get himself in front of a jury, because he’d be too likely to win in front of one.

I say his best case scenario is the final episode (somewhere between final 6 and 4), but snuffed out before he can win over a jury that was probably rooting for him at that point anyway.

Worst Case Scenario

The biggest obstacles for Jeff Varner are his massive ego and his challenge deficiencies. If he can’t get out of his own way in his need to gain control of both the game and the edit, he will be taken out early by players who have heard the stories of what a wild card he was in Cambodia. Or maybe just players who aren’t interested in being sidekicks on the Jeff Varner show.

The absolute worst case scenario is that he winds up on some kind of meathead tribe dominated by the likes of Ozzy, Culpepper, Sarah, or Caleb, who base the first vote on “challenge strength”. He does something to lose the challenge and is one of the first boots. This is both the worst case scenario for Jeff Varner and the worst case for us, as it will be the harbinger of everything that could go wrong this season.

Most Likely Scenario

We see the Jeff Varner he wanted to be in Cambodia: one who plays hard, but not too hard. He won’t have to choose between two extremes of Terry and the olds who don’t want to strategize or Shirin and the youngs who want to overstrategize. And this will let him play to his strengths at a pace best suited to him.

The challenge will be the players who both enjoy his company, but also see him for the strategic/social threat that he is, and there’s several players who could potentially fit that mold: Cirie, Malcolm, Sandra, Zeke. If he butts heads with them and loses, it could be another season of not even reaching the jury (it should be noted that Cirie NEVER teams with our other favs going into a season). But I think he will. Varner makes the merge, but is taken out once challenge threats are less of a worry than jury threats. And it will be a fun ride along the way.