By Rob Brunner
Updated July 13, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
David Giesbrecht/USA Network

The inner life of Hillary Clinton remains one of politics’ great mysteries. Why has she stayed with Bill after years of humiliating infidelity? What drove her to run for Senate and then president? What’s it like working for the man who snatched away the Commander-in-Chief job she thought was hers to lose? This six-part miniseries, created by Greg Berlanti (Brothers & Sisters, Dirty Sexy Money), tries to imagine some answers, and the result is a well-acted, entertainingly soapy drama that might not crack the Clinton code definitively but still offers a fun and credible look at the complicated intersection of love, gender, and politics.

Secretary of State Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) is the Hillary figure, an aggrieved former First Lady who lost a tough primary fight to the eventual president (Adrian Pasdar) and now serves in his Cabinet. Unlike Hillary, she has dumped her cheating husband, Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds), now a jowly, buffoonish sleazeball emeritus hovering ”one sex scandal away from Dancing With the Stars,” as one character puts it. But the couple’s political lives are still entangled, and as the show unfolds, it’s clear that they love and loathe and manipulate each other in equal measure. ”Did we sleep together because of politics?” Hammond says to Barrish at one point. ”Sure. But it was also about love. It’s always about both with us, baby. That’s our story.”

In addition to her attention-hungry ex, Barrish must grapple with her grown sons, Douglas and T.J. — one a good kid who works as her chief of staff (James Wolk), the other a cokehead screwup (Sebastian Stan) — and her boozy truth-teller of a mom (Ellen Burstyn). She has to handle international incidents like an Iranian hostage situation while finessing sexist diplomats and navigating tricky relationships with the president and his snaky veep (Dylan Baker). And she tries to fend off raptorish newspaper columnist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), a longtime antagonist who was barred from the White House for six years after, as Berg says, ”one little comment about [Barrish] epitomizing the death of feminism.” Berg has strong-armed her way into a deep-access profile of Barrish, and the bristling back-and-forth between the two self-described bitches is irresistible — smart and tense and insightful. Barrish and Berg have more in common than either (at first) knows, and the subtleties of their budding connection, expertly evoked by Weaver and Gugino, provide some of the early episodes’ highlights.

It’s hard to imagine how this will all play out over a mere six episodes; Political Animals‘ rich characters and complicated relationships seem like they’d need six seasons to develop. And not everything works: Hammond is a little too icky and charmless to succeed as a Bill Clinton stand-in, a subplot about T.J.’s quest to invest in a nightclub sucks up too much air, and the show suffers from its share of hokey moments. But after watching the first two episodes, I found myself eager for more — which is a shame, given the miniseries’ already impending end. B+