Early in the pilot of the new USA series "Fairly Legal" (which debuts tonight at 10), a judge (played by the estimable Gerald McRaney) explains what it is that the show's heroine, Kate Reed (Sarah Shahi) does for a living.

"A mediator is kind of a referee in a game with no rules - except those agreed to by the parties involved," he says, at the start of a monologue listing the sorts of disputes that Kate has mediated over the years.

As I watched the speech, it seemed quite helpful - not to learn what a mediator does (I already knew), but to get an idea of how the "Fairly Legal" creative team were attempting to separate their show, and heroine, from the average legal drama. (Also, if you need someone to deliver bald exposition, might as well have it be Major Dad.)

But as it turned out over the three episodes USA sent out for review (the pilot, a mid-season episode, and the first season finale), what Kate does only occasionally matches up with the judge's speech, and none of her cases are interesting enough to distinguish "Fairly Legal" from the abundance of law shows on TV.

So the basic idea is that Kate was once a lawyer at her father's prestigious San Francisco firm, but got burnt out how the legal system works - "In court," she explains, "somebody wins, but there's always a loser" - and decided to try mediation, where she essentially represents both parties. As the series begins, her father has recently died, and she's reluctantly working out of an office at the old firm, now run by his much younger widow Lauren (Virginia Williams).

Kate is messy, habitually late, and usually oblivious to the feelings of Lauren, her prosecutor ex-husband Justin (Michael Trucco) and her geeky assistant Leo (Baron Vaughn). Oh, and she defines the people in her life by assigning them ringtones based on different characters in "The Wizard of Oz."(*) She is, in other words, a capital-C Character of the type USA likes to build shows around, and perhaps with stronger material and/or co-stars, Shahi might be a strong enough lead to make this work, but she's kind of flailing away in a vacuum, seeming like a Character only by virtue of the fact that everyone and everything else is so bland.

(*) Hollywood needs a moratorium on ringtone humor. So, so tired.

I liked Shahi a lot as Damian Lewis' straight woman sidekick on "Life," but here she's given very little to work with. The cases are all snores - one of the later episodes involves a dispute over a BBQ sauce recipe, and while I imagine some show could make that interesting, "Fairly Legal" did not - and the only regular castmember with whom she has any kind of rapport is Vaughn.

And I think it wouldn't necessarily matter if the cases, or clients, or even the other characters, were forgettable, if we actually got to see Kate do her mediator thing on a regular basis. But we don't.

There's a scene near the start of the pilot(**) where Kate's attempt to buy coffee is interrupted by the coffee shop being robbed, and she quickly defuses the potential for violence by getting the shopkeeper and robber to agree on a reasonable dollar figure that can exchange hands. It's a bit corny, but at least it conveys the unique thing that Kate does. It's a rarity, though, as few of the other stories climax with some kind of wisdom-of-Solomon solution - and the one time it does, it's actually Leo who comes up with the idea while Kate's busy with another case.

(**) Which is 15 minutes longer than normal, not because the stories merit it, but because that's how USA's pilots roll.

Most of the time, Kate winds up playing marriage counselor, or private detective, or bodyguard, or whatever that week's generic storyline calls for. And while the idea of making your hero a jack-of-all-trades fits the USA model (Mark Feuerstein is an expert on every type of medicine on "Royal Pains," and Jeffrey Donovan on "Burn Notice" is an expert at everything, period), here it mainly feels like lack of conviction - like someone in the development process began to worry that actual mediation would make for boring TV.

Maybe it would, but though I like Shahi, what she's actually given to do is barely a step above boring.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com