The Mindy Project’s fourth season premiered on Hulu yesterday, but you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing’s changed since the comedy’s third season wrapped on Fox earlier this year. The premiere episode, "While I Was Sleeping" is an excellent 30 minutes of television, but it’s also a thoroughly conventional one. It uses tricks that network season premieres have been using for decades: guest stars, thinly veiled exposition, and a major development that sets up this season’s dominant story line. And despite its new status as an "internet" show, the entire season hasn’t been dumped onto the web all at once, either: Mindy will be released weekly like any other piece of scheduled programming.
The show will now be even more accessible to the audience it wants and needs
But while its content isn’t all that surprising, Mindy’s move to Hulu is shaping up to be a broader experiment in marrying the time-honored rhythms of network television to the cordless technology of streaming services. The show’s — and by extension, creator Mindy Kaling’s — unique voice and broad appeal gives Hulu the opportunity to ask an interesting question: what happens when you take a "normal" network TV show and plop it onto the internet without changing anything? Mindy’s content, audience, and level of success and prestige are unlikely to change — and that’s a great sign for the maturity of Hulu and its streaming TV competitors.
The Mindy Project isn’t the first show to make the leap from network or cable to streaming services. Netflix has resurrected shows like Arrested Development and The Killing from certain death and added them to their stable of original programming without batting an eye. But Mindy isn’t particularly culty in the way that made those shows feel particularly "internet-friendly": it’s the kind of voice-driven, workplace-based romantic comedy that’s existed since the dawn of television, one complete with its own defining "will they or won’t they" pair (they will) and a colorful yet relatable supporting cast. Judging from "While I Was Sleeping," moving to Hulu hasn’t changed any of those core qualities, despite the fact that the show’s new neighbors include such acerbic, off-beat sitcoms as Difficult People and the Hotwives parody "franchise." The show still feels like the child of a Nora Ephron movie and a zippy, absurd episode of 30 Rock, and that’s great; Kaling’s personality is strong enough to come through no matter what network’s hosting her.
The most promising part of The Mindy Project’s move has to do with perception. When you take a look at the list of shows that have switched networks due to low ratings — a list that includes everything from Cougar Town and Conan to Law & Order: Criminal Intent — the move is always to a less reputable or less-watched network. The hope is that with a smaller network’s smaller budget, the core fans will still tune in, and the show will sell enough ads to turn a profit. Mindy was dropped from Fox for the same reason all of those other shows were dropped: not enough people were watching it, no matter how much good press it got. But few people are looking at Mindy’s move to Hulu as a death knell or a step down; if anything, people are treating the shift as a coup for the service and a victory for the show, which will now be even more accessible to the audience it wants and needs.
It’s a sign that streaming television has come a long way
When the show was airing on Fox, its audience was largely made up of young, wealthy, and educated people. That’s the kind of audience that likely already has a Hulu subscription or will happily shell out for one if they don't — and more and more, the kind of audience that’s skipping cable subscriptions altogether. That audience wasn’t large enough to sustain the show in Fox’s eyes, but it’s more than large enough for a young and growing service like Hulu, and the platform will get to reap the rewards of exclusivity instead of whatever they made in their old distribution deal with Fox.
This is the best possible outcome for Hulu, and it’s a sign that streaming television has come a long way in terms of respectability. The Mindy Project might not have been a ratings champion, but it’s a smart, savvy series with high-profile talent and plenty of admirers. Its leap to an online home feels like a victory for all parties involved: the show gets to continue to exist, and Hulu takes another step toward a spot at the table with Netflix, HBO, and the rest of TV’s elite.