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'The Runner-Up' review: Clay Aiken's challenging campaign for Congress

The Runner-Up (Esquire TV documentary on Clay Aiken's

The Runner-Up (Esquire TV documentary on Clay Aiken's failed run for Congress) Credit: Lightbox Entertainment

THE SHOW "The Runner-Up"

WHEN | WHERE This four-episode docuseries premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Esquire.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "American Idol" finalist runs for Congress? Check the calendar, this isn't April Fools' Day. But that's the kind of crazy train on which Clay Aiken jumped on when he decided to run for North Carolina's second-district Congressional seat last year.

"Clay has no political experience, he has no political cred, he has no -- we don't know, really, what he knows," one woman tells the "Runner-Up" camera. She happens to be Aiken's political adviser. That pretty much sums up the challenge. Of course Aiken is also a Democrat in the conservative Republican South. And he's gay.

He also proves in this docuseries to be a micromanaging worrywart, spending time obsessed with yard signs, while his uber-experienced Democratic primary opponent runs crushing negative TV ads using a war chest that outranks Aiken's by a factor of 25.

But our title 35-year-old -- he lost to Ruben Studdard on "Idol" in 2003 and lost to Arsenio Hall on "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2012 -- is a stunningly un-self-conscious subject, bluntly giving voice to his every hope, fear, frustration and catty comment. That's entertainment, all right.

MY SAY But is it compelling? Aiken's conflicted feelings set us up for our own.

He says he wants to "speak up for people who're not being listened to." But what are his concrete political goals? That's not clear. While nobody wants policy papers here, a little more meat would've been nice. Are we cheering for his victory, or not?

Even Aiken isn't sure, confessing on primary morning "I don't know whether I would rather win or rather lose. . . . There is a real part of me that just says if I lose, I don't have to deal with this [expletive] anymore." He means the mudslinging and the daily minutiae and, hey, wait. Isn't he running for, uh, Congress?

So what to make of the man and his docuproject? Hard to say after previewing only Tuesday's intro hour. It sure does have a doozy of a conclusion (especially if you've forgotten the post-primary shockeroo).


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