Idris Elba! Kim Kardashian! Ariana Grande! Greta Thunberg! Rihanna! Adele! The cast list of ITV’s new comedy is impeccable. It would be right up there with Glengarry Glen Ross or Pulp Fiction if it weren’t for one snag: those famous faces appear only via deep fake technology, which super-imposes their beloved features onto the profiles of actors (who are doing middling vocal impressions of them). This is the world of Deep Fake Neighbour Wars, a show that mixes comedy and technology with as much success as Dave Chapelle welcoming Elon Musk as his warm-up act.
It’s essentially a mockumentary version of naff reality TV, like Nasty Neighbours and Fear Thy Neighbor. Petty domestic disputes that escalate into (in this case, slapstick) violence. The twist here is that the participants have the faces (and names) of well-known celebrities. They don’t, however, have the careers of those celebrities, and they only possess a smattering of their character traits. For every Kim Kardashian (Francine Lewis) who’s obsessed with sunbathing in Lewisham, or Greta Thunberg (Katia Kvinge) who’s monomaniacal about electricity wastage, there’s a pernickety Idris Elba (Aurie Styla) trying to grow coriander or a cackling Conor McGregor (Al Foran) who wants to celebrate Christmas all year round.
It is, therefore, basically an impressions show, and it styles itself thus. “Our celebs are all played by actors,” a title card informs us at the beginning, before introducing the central gimmick. “Their faces are all DEEP FAKED.” Putting aside the ethics of deep fakery for a moment, this does cut the task of the impressionist in half. This is not Ronni Ancona contorting her entire being to become Nigella Lawson, or Alistair McGowan inhabiting Richard Madeley like some parasitic host. Instead, the craftsmanship of the puppets is handed over to AI technology, which produces a result that, unlike the grotesque caricatures of Spitting Image, is pretty much a… spitting image. Where’s the fun in that?
ITV knows that Deep Fake Neighbour Wars is bad. They knew it from the second it was pitched and the instant they commissioned it. The point of Deep Fake Neighbour Wars is that it’s bad. It is a premise of such stupid simplicity that it has the quality of a B-movie, like Snakes on a Plane or Killer Klowns from Outer Space. It is begging its viewers to post incredulous social media takes; to share clips of scaffolder Ariana Grande shimmying in Southend on TikTok or Snapchat or wherever kids hang out these days. It is intended to incite irritation and elicit one-star reviews. And so, to some extent: job done.
Where the job of Deep Fake Neighbour Wars is less comprehensively done, is in the task of being a competent sketch show. There is a spark of madness to the premise, the idea of using deep fake technology, that in the right hands might have worked. But the show is incapable of raising even the faintest chuckle. “I’m beginning to regret my move to South-East,” moans bus driver Kim Kardashian, in the closest DFNW comes to a one-liner. “I miss North West.” The rest of the show is so cheaply made, and so aggressively underwritten, that, even at just 20-minutes, it makes you intensely conscious of your own mortality. The show’s sense of humour is, ultimately, derived from a belief that viewers will find something intrinsically funny about seeing a paunchy Idris Elba (often shown from behind, for, presumably, budget reasons) hurling pot plants in anger, or a teen mum Greta Thunberg electrocuting herself.
“Breaking the internet really made us take a hard look at our behaviour,” announces a sombre Kim at her conflict resolution session with Idris. In the language of the show, the sight of a 50-year-old man slipping over in his garden in Catford has broken the internet. I’m afraid it’s not so easy, either in real life or in the world of television sketch comedy. For all that Deep Fake Neighbour Wars began life as a cynical, rage-baiting project, it just isn’t funny or weird enough to put a dent in the internet. Trying to make something so bad it’s good is a dangerous undertaking – and Deep Fake Neighbour Wars leaves that mission resoundingly half-finished.