Jessica (Milena Govich): So this is your true calling, prosecuting the disenfranchised for $51 grand a year?
New ADA Nick Potter (Jordan Bridges): I hope so.

Speaking to TV critics at the TCA’s January press tour, Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf acknowledged that his latest legal drama exists in the L&O universe and might easily have been prefixed as such. “Could it have been branded? Sure. I mean, the average ‘In the criminal justice system, the average age of a prosecutor in New York City is 28. These are their stories. Chung, chung.’ That would work.”

What makes the new show different, he claims, is the storytelling. Conviction, which premieres Friday night following a preview stint on iTunes, offers multiple storylines (rather than one exposition-drenched case) and takes a stab at fleshing out its protagonists. Wolf calls it a “character-cedural.”

The awkward term fits, because Conviction is an awkward show. Smooth on the surface and populated by appealing and familiar leads — including SVU alum Stephanie March, reprising her role as Alexandra Cabot — the pilot is one part WB, one part L&O, with some Boston Legal to further confuse the audience. The focus is on young assistant district attorneys — those 28-ish professionals touted ad nauseam in NBC’s ads — with one newbie serving as the viewer’s eyes and ears.

He’s Nick Potter (Jordan Bridges), a rich kid who’s left behind his big-firm salary ($150K for a first year) to try cases as an ADA. No one understands his need for a change, not the prep-school friend who says he’ll have a job waiting when Nick comes to his senses, and not Deputy District Attorney Jim Steele (Anson Mount). “What is it, Nick?” he asks. “You bored? Looking for something to talk about at cocktail parties?”

Jim is a — er — steel-y type, impatient, mostly gruff, and devoted to the job. He knows how to wrangle the hotshot men in the office — Red Bull-addict Brian (Eric Balfour) and slick Billy (J. August Richards), whom Richards describes as a cross between Johnnie Cochran and John F. Kennedy. But Mike (Elias Koteas) has the softer touch. “Randolph’s a pro,” Jessica (Milena Govich) tells Nick as they watch him greet a victim’s parents. “He treats people like… people.” He treats ADAs that way, too: as Christina (Julianne Nicholson) prepares for her first trial after two years in the office, Mike give her a pep talk, and arranges for a floral delivery after the verdict, win or lose.

Of course, characters this decent and sympathetic aren’t written to last. They’re meant to haunt and influence. Just so, Mike sets the example by prosecuting an evil drug king charged with cutting open a coed’s abdomen to retrieve the coke she smuggled into the country, and then paying the price. As Nick’s naivete may have contributed to Randolph’s downfall, he pays, too. And if you wonder whether the rookie will stick with his grim new gig, you must not know much about TV pilots.

Conviction‘s first hour is directed by Felicity co-creator Matt Reeves, who brings that series’ movie-ish cinematography and dark interiors to the party. The sets are populated by a telegenic cast of familiar quirky types, set to bounce again and again between ambition, romance, angst, and comic comeuppance. Unfortunately, those aims appear cursory in the pilot, as the episode dwells just enough on backstory and off-work relationships (Jim was an usher at Mike’s wedding and Brian wants his ex back, current one-night stands notwithstanding) to put the character in character-cedural.

In fact, Wolf’s supposed one-off isn’t so far removed from L&O that it treats its fictional people like… people. Rather, it presents a chorus of personality traits and snippets of procedure. Such half-hearted demographic-baiting seems unlikely to snag the younger viewers NBC so desperately wants back. Older folks might tune in, though, for a cheap jolt of nostalgia.