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Review: Amazon Prime’s ‘Lorena’ is a fascinating and flawed view of the Bobbitt case

Review: Amazon Prime’s ‘Lorena’ is a fascinating and flawed view of the Bobbitt case
"Lorena" revisits the Bobbitt story 25 years later with Lorena Gallo, and shows how much has and hasn't change around domestic violence and how its victims are portrayed in the media. (Amazon)

The story was so sensational it could have been culled from a fictional “true crime” paperback.

Lorena Bobbitt (now known as Lorena Gallo) cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis as he slept and absconded with it, launching a notorious search for the missing appendage.

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Amazon Prime’s docu-series “Lorena” revisits the 1993 story that launched a months-long media frenzy, crushed the already-thin barrier between tabloid news and the real thing and brought issues of domestic violence to the fore a year before O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder.

Twenty-five years later, this four-part series attempts to cut through the layers of daytime talk show hysteria and late-night jokes to chronicle what really happened that night and in the months and years that followed, through interviews with Gallo and Bobbitt, their attorneys, families and others who were involved in or covered their cases.

The two players in this story are fascinating to watch. She’s so soft-spoken you can barely hear her as she recounts the physical abuse she suffered and the terror she felt that June night when she grabbed for the knife. He’s so mild-mannered and seemingly hapless it’s hard to reconcile that this is the same guy who became a hero among the Howard Stern crowd for recovering his manhood ... and prevailing in court.

The problem is that “Lorena,” now streaming, gets bogged down in the sensationalism that it attempts to deconstruct — all the mania that helped establish Court TV and the 24-7 cable news cycle.

Despite its goal of cutting through the noise, the four-hour series spends half its time immersed in the clamor by hammering away at how the press distorted facts, demonized Lorena and painted John as the sole victim of this tragic story. Clips of Jenny Jones, Geraldo Rivera, SNL skits and countless nightly and cable news reports make the point over and over again, diluting what this series is trying to do in terms of telling a revised version of this American tragedy, minus the flippant misogyny that characterized it the first time around.

And to be fair, retelling the Bobbitt story in a linear fashion, free of all that sensationalist clutter, is no easy task. She cut his penis in half when he was passed out in bed, then threw it out the car window while fleeing. It was found on the roadside of their Manassas, Va., neighborhood by police and sewed back on by a surgeon. Trials ensued, revealing a history of domestic abuse. She’s ordered to do time in a mental institution while he becomes a national celebrity and then porn star. Their fortunes eventually reverse, and today Gallo’s the star of this production and he’s the cautionary tale.

The real-life narrative alone makes this a series worth watching and “Lorena” does do an excellent job of shining a light on the legal system’s blind spots when it comes to domestic violence and the protection of women. It’s also powerful in showing how both Gallo and Bobbitt were exploited by an entertainment industry that thrives on scandal, humiliation, sexism and sex.

But as with many streaming doc series — “Wild, Wild Country,” “Making a Murderer” — “Lorena” would have been more effective condensed into a two-hour film. As is, it waits too long to reveal critical context about Lorena’s history of abuse at the hands of her husband and his issues around alcohol and an abusive childhood — both of which are revelations that might have focused and pushed the story toward deeper, personal territory early on.

The series, which was directed by filmmaker Joshua Rofé and executive produced by Jordan Peele, could have been called “The Bobbitts” because it spends as much if not more time following Bobbitt’s tumultuous life as it does Gallo’s. Both of them have suffered, though here, she finally gets the chance to tell her side of the story sans the snide Letterman jokes and tabloid headlines that characterized her as a “jealous wife” and “hot-blooded Latina.”

“Lorena” has its problems, but as a time capsule on where we were then and how far the media has and hasn’t come in years since, it is worth wading through the lurid muck for some long overdue reassessment.

‘Lorena’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time

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Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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