Kim Kardashian drives a London bus, Idris Elba tends his brassicas and teen mum Greta Thunberg pushes her baby in a pram around the streets of Southend. No, it’s not a fever dream – it’s ITV’s new sketch comedy, Deep Fake Neighbour Wars, which premieres on Thursday (26 January).
A first of its kind, the show uses controversial deep fake technology, better known for making fake news and revenge porn, to put celebrities’ faces onto actors’ bodies as they navigate everyday conflicts with their neighbours.
In the first episode, Elba and Kardashian argue over access to their shared garden in Catford. Meanwhile, in Southend-on-Sea, newly arrived single mother Greta Thunberg complains to the council about the outrageous Christmas decorations left up all year by her neighbours (who just happen to be “florist” Conor McGregor and “scaffolder” Ariana Grande).
Reactions from those who’ve had a peek have been mixed to say the least, with one critic calling it “without question the worst television programme ever made”.
Others are wondering how on earth ITV is getting away with putting words in celebrities’ mouths in such a realistic(ish) way. “Is this even legal?” asked one video on the Curiously YouTube channel.
One legal expert, Dorsey & Whitney’s Ron Moscona, told Little Black Book: “This kind of show definitely tests the limits. It would need to make it abundantly clear that the deepfake images are not real and also that the show is not sponsored or approved by the individuals being portrayed.”
He added: “This is usually not a problem if the comedy clearly makes fun of celebrities by way of parody or pastiche. However, the deep fake technology – particularly if it is high quality – clearly increases the risk of people getting the wrong end of the stick.”
The creators are clearly keen to avoid such a possibility. The show opens with a long, if tongue-in-cheek, disclaimer – “The powers that be made us put this at the start otherwise we may not have been able to get it on the telly…” – and the entire thing is watermarked with a “deep fake” logo that seems designed to prevent scenes being presented out of context online.
Could viewers really fall for the fakes? Some of the voice impressions are quite accurate – “Greta” is surprisingly convincing, even when she’s talking about her beloved son “Algae” – but others are rough around the edges.
The deep fakes themselves are made by specialist company StudioNeural, which has previously made adverts and music videos. The graphics are mostly pretty good, especially when the characters are looking at the camera straight-on, but there are times when the technology shows it’s still in its infancy.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what is so eerie about them, but some of the scenes just feel fake.
There are plenty more big names slated to appear in later episodes of the six-parter, in more unlikely combinations. Last month’s trailer showed Nicki Minaj and Spiderman star Tom Holland wearing matching velour tracksuits, while Jay-Z and Olivia Colman cuddle up together on the sofa.
Other stars set to feature include Stormzy, Harry Kane, Chris Rock, Adele and Matthew McConaughey.
Will any of these A-listers take issue with the use of their (not-so-)likenesses? If so, the ITV legal team could be in uncharted waters.
And what about the actors? There’s a nice moment at the end of the episode where they “shake off” their CGI masks for a virtual curtain call, but otherwise we don’t see their real faces at all.
Katia Kvinge, who plays both Ariana and Greta, has done TV and voiceover work before, but it must be strange for impressionist Al Foran, who according to IMDb is making his first TV appearance as Conor McGregor, to get such a big break only to have his face covered over by a computer.
Even if it’s not destined to be a classic like Spitting Image or Dead Ringers, Deep Fake Neighbour Wars is worth a look for the novelty value alone. Where else can you see Kim Kardashian wearing hi vis behind the wheel of a bus?
All six episodes of Deep Fake Neighbour Wars will be available on ITVX from Thursday 26 January.