During "Breaking Bad"’s pulse-racing episode last Sunday, viewers who follow Aaron Paul on Twitter got a stream of adrenalized commentary weighing in on the action. “My heart is pounding and I can’t breathe. Holy shit,” Paul tweeted as the Nazis launched a fusillade of bullets at launched at Jesse, Walt, and Hank. Then there was the tweet “Holy Fu#%ing shit,” as Hank fell to the ground. And finally, after midnight, “Holy shit what is happening!!!!,” as if his visions of the shootout had continued nightmarishly into his sleep. But then one of Paul’s followers clarified for confused fans: “He’s tweeting for west coast he already tweeted with east coast.”
The Aaron Paul “Breaking Bad” tweets were a stunt for AMC—the network, which is perhaps more obessed with viewer engagement than other networks (take this split screen iPad app)—occasionally has Paul live-tweet episodes. The live-tweeting is a smart move: there is an insidery frisson to seeing an actor experience the show as a viewer instead of a participant, just as blown away by the drama as we are. But the strangest thing about this phenomenon is seeing how viewers respond. Each of Paul’s “Holy shits” got dozens of replies of “I know!!” Clearly Paul is acting on Twitter, too: not just as the character he plays, or as Aaron Paul the human, but as just another viewer who is completely in the dark. And the fans, naturally aware that Paul knows how the story ends, are so eager to share the experience with the actor that they suspend this knowledge and play along. It's like a social-media fantasy wormhole that all of Twitter agrees to go down. And it's evidence of the way some actors have used social media not just to promote themselves but to direct the conversation around TV shows: carnival barking, managing expectations, riling up the crowd.
Not all actors are good at this. Many such twitter accounts are often either vacuous or boringly promotional. Bryan Cranston’s is sporadic and stiff. (“Thank you fans for all the tremendous support.”) But Paul and Dean Norris savvily manage to blur the line between their roles as actor, character, and viewer. Paul’s Twitter persona is as adorable and hyped-up as one might expect, and uses the hashtag “bitch” a lot (his character, Jesse's, favorite word). Norris’s is so adept at the strange art of viewer engagement that his tweets can seem like mad, profane haikus.
Hey you "rooting for Walt" folks. Got some John Wayne Gacy art for sale! Retweet if you'll pay top dollar you sick fucks!— dean norris (@deanjnorris) September 13, 2013
The morning after his onscreen death, he tweeted:
Damn, woke up this morning and my head was KILLING me. Weird— dean norris (@deanjnorris) September 16, 2013
(7,325 retweets.) Norris is an impressive virtual crowd wrangler, goading viewers with acidic prompts like “RT if you heart fuckin psychopaths” (861 retweets). And he also knows how to reveal the bare minimum of personal details to encourage an illusion of intimacy with his followers. At 6:22 am Monday morning he tweeted a link to Google search results for “breakung bad cast phoyo:"
SPOILER ALERT. We won! https://t.co/GJgZHlJmGq— dean norris (@deanjnorris) September 23, 2013
...revealing just enough about his post-Emmys evening—euphoria, team spirit, drunkenness—to make fans feel both included and piqued. Then there's the way actors like Norris can end up policing the culture of online TV commentary:
For last time.Social media=watercooler.Part of experience of BB is sharing at watercooler.If NOT up to date, avoid fucking watercooler— dean norris (@deanjnorris) September 20, 2013
...Norris tweeted on September 20, after a fan had complained that Twitter had informed her of Hank’s demise. His responses to other complaints include: “So sorry we’ll all wait 2 yrs fr yr fuckin lame ass” and “MORON ALERT 48 hours after intl release, if u not caught up on BB? stay the fuck off twitter.” His crude realtalk about the TV-watching experience is a Hank-esque antidote to Aaron Paul's phony obliviousness. Showrunners often take to Twitter to engage with viewers about how to watch their shows; Shonda Rhimes live-tweets whole episodes of “Scandal.” But there is something particularly hypnotic about seeing TV actors, at once spectators to the creative process and participants in the action, respond to the events of the plot and tell other viewers what to think. This is what “Talking Bad,” the bizarro behind-the-scenes talk show that airs after “Low Winter Sun” on Sundays, tries and fails to capitalize on—it's just no @deanjnorris or @aaronpaul_8.