What The Mindy Project Can Do to Win on Hulu
Over the last few years, a number of series with small-but-loyal audiences have found an online life after broadcast or cable cancellation: Netflix revived Arrested Development seven years after its Fox run, Community just completed its Season 6 after shifting from NBC to Yahoo Screen. Now The Mindy Project will have a new home on Hulu after getting the axe from Fox. It's good news for diehard fans dedicated to 'shipping Mindy Lahiri (played by series creator Mindy Kaling) and her grumpy colleague/best friend Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), as well as for the stars and studio, who get a shot at syndication thanks to the 26-episode pick-up.
But existing shows have a big uphill battle when they move from a network to a streaming service. Series that originate online, such as Orange Is the New Black (which returns this week), House of Cards, and Transparent, benefit from a flurry of reviews and awards, and hook an audience for online viewing right from the beginning. Transitioning series have a harder time maintaining awareness. Take Community: after a brief rush of coverage at its launch, the latest season mostly fell off the media radar. Yahoo hasn't released viewership numbers, but even the show's most ardent fans might not have remembered to fire up their laptops, or switch over to their Rokus, or cast from their Chromecasts, and look for the episodes each week—a more demanding process than just setting their DVRs to the local NBC station.
It doesn't matter if a show's entire season is dumped out at once, as on Netflix, or doled out a week at a time, as on Hulu; with so many other shows competing for attention, people will forget you exist if you're not on their channel grids. So how do Kaling and company keep an audience for Season 4?
Meet the fans. On Fox, the show's third season averaged just over two million viewers; to succeed on Hulu, it needs a huge promotional push before Season 4 to keep it in the public consciousness and to keep those viewers as engaged and invested as possible. Bill Lawrence had the right idea when Cougar Town was struggling: take the show to the fans by hosting viewing parties with its stars. The loyalty of its base bought it additional seasons on ABC and later TBS. Kaling's near-A-list status would make a similar move a big deal. And hey, if they need to give away some Rokus and Hulu subscriptions to help get the word out, those gatherings are a good place to do it.
Use the platform wisely. Shows moving from network TV have to embrace the new freedoms that streaming offers without alienating fans. The Killing, for instance, went from one f-bomb in its first Netflix episode to a torrent of them by the end of its short season, which was weirdly incongruous from its first three PG-13 seasons on AMC. Arrested Development frustrated some fans (and delighted others) by including scenes that didn't pay off for many episodes. Other shows just kept doing what they were doing, to mostly snoozes and yawns.
Mindy needs to give fans a reason to differentiate the Hulu season from the others. That could mean stretching the episodes to 40 minutes to work in extended subplots that reward fans, or making major changes to address the parts that still aren't working. The series finally found its creative legs near the end of Season 2 by getting the two leads together, which added stability and let Kaling and the writing staff focus pop-culture-obsessed Mindy and curmudgeonly Danny into real human characters. But the first two seasons were rife with format and cast changes, and the secondary characters are still uneven. Perhaps Schulman and Associates is played out—Ed Weeks (Jeremy), Beth Grant (Beverly), and Xosha Roquemore (Tamra) are hilarious, but given little to do. Shifting the focus to Dr. L's fertility clinic as the show's work component would open up a ton of new material and storylines.
Get daring. Topically, it's time for Kaling to throw caution to the wind and pull an Amy Schumer. The comedian uses her sketches on Inside Amy Schumer –including her unapologetic takes on whether she's hot enough for TV and actresses' supposed expiration dates – to poke holes into just about every gender stereotype around. The fictional Mindy's situation is ripe for Kaling to make her own statements. She's starting a family and her own fertility clinic; will she "lean in," "lean out" or claim that the whole notion of either is B.S.? Will Danny be a stay-at-home dad? Kaling deals with similar issues already. Dr. L is constantly telling people how "hot" she is, and Kaling's not playing that dialogue up for ironic laughs; it comes from a confidence that she has in herself and thinks other women should have. She is a smart enough writer to comment on serious issues using a light tone. The more she does this in Season 4, the more the show will get attention; and the more people that are sending the message that women are more than just girlfriends and wives, the better.
None of these steps will likely generate a huge audience, but they might be enough to get Mindy a fifth season. And that in itself would be a pretty good achievement.