Padma Lakshmi, barely wearing a gauzy off-white dress, clutching a plastic bag presumably bursting with ripe fruit, glides through an outdoor farmers market, moving at a pace with which insomniac cable-watchers may remember Bo Derek emerging from the ocean in 10. The produce in the stalls she passes seems to consist solely of crops rich in sensual connotations — zucchini, navel oranges, skeins of dried red chiles — and while her head occasionally bounces out of frame, the moist, brown skin of her cleavage never does. She is something of a ripe fruit herself, an advertisement for fecundity. The camera peers still more closely down her blouse.
She emerges from the stalls, settles splay-legged onto an urban stoop, and reaches for — not a juicy nectarine but a Western Bacon Six Dollar Cheeseburger from a Carl’s Jr. sack she has hidden behind her farmers market bag. In full, pornographic close-up, shot with the vividness of NFL Films coverage of an especially vicious tackle, she bites into the thing: her eyes opening wide at the size of it, the hypermiked crunch of lettuce, the muscles of her throat contracting at first, then relaxing to admit the sheer bulk of meat. She plucks out a slice of bacon and flicks her tongue along the underside of it before sliding its length down her throat. She hikes up her dress when it appears that the hamburger is about to spurt, and she tongues the viscous fluids from her wrist and her lips, leaving conspicuous evidence of the money shot streaked on her glistening cheek. A droplet has landed on her ankle, just below the golden bangle that encircles it, and she reaches down to capture it. The camera pans slowly up a tawny leg as she gently sucks the juices off her distended middle finger. In the next frame, a Western Bacon Six Dollar Cheeseburger dribbles thick sauce.
I cheerfully admit it: I watch way too much basketball on television. And in these days of attenuated financial institutions, where breaks in the game were once filled by ads for now-broke insurance companies, Chevy trucks, stockbrokers, and overnight-delivery services at a disadvantage now that few people are in much of a hurry for anything, fast-food commercials, never underrepresented, have come to pick up the slack. Not a quarter goes by without a mascot ripping off his sleeves in anticipation of a fistfight, or a plea for 4,800-calorie microwaved snacks, or a short bout of thinking outside the bun — it’s what boys do. (The ads for kaffee klatches at McDonald’s tend to be shown elsewhere.)
Carl’s Jr. is in a category of its own, sponsor of minidramas where entry-level businessmen exult in their inability to tell a $4.29 cheeseburger from the burger they’re paying $14 for at a fancy restaurant; alcoholic surgeons admit their inability to operate without knocking back a Bourbon Burger or two; and firefighters burn their mouths on spicy jalapeño burgers.
Oddly enough, Carl’s Jr. is the only chain at the moment to air advertisements focusing on its food — the sandwiches and teriyaki bowls appear at the end almost like afterthoughts in Jack in the Box commercials, and Taco Bell might as well be selling rebellion instead of 820-calorie taco salads. In Carl’s Jr. ads, burgers drip, squirt and disassemble themselves into piles of meat and bun. When you look at a Carl’s Jr. burger these days, you can sense that somebody in the firm is involved in making it at least resemble a decent hamburger. The wadlike bun has the creases and bulges of an artisanal bun, and the lettuce is generally fresh enough to crunch. If you spend the few cents to upgrade to a “Six Dollar Burger,” the beef, nominally Angus, tastes like actual meat instead of compressed sawdust. There is no shortage of jalapeños on the jalapeño burger, and if you buy the concept of syrupy glaze and Durkee-like onion straws on your cheeseburger, the Bourbon Burger isn’t bad for something bought from a drive-through window.
Lakshmi, a cookbook author, host of Top Chef and the ex of novelist Salman Rushdie, comes across as impossibly exotic, but she is a graduate of Workman High School, in the armpit of the San Gabriel Valley. (I once spent two hours at the old Ginza Sushiko listening to her go on to a television producer about hot restaurants and hot guys and hot private planes as Rushdie buried his face in his knuckly fists.) Growing up Hindu, as a vegetarian, consuming a Western Bacon Cheeseburger was probably the most transgressive act available to her at the time. Her commercial, for which she apparently approached Carl’s Jr. herself, is the purest pornography of meat.