Prom is a night for celebration before graduation. At the end of the year, all the kids get to dress up and dance together. They let loose, have a good time, and forget about everything that's happened over the course of the year/their tumultuous high school careers. TV proms are the epitome of this tradition. They're where the popular kids try to win a crown, and everyone else just tries not to make a fool of themselves.
The best TV proms bring plenty of drama, but they also serve as a culmination of storylines that have been ongoing. Prom is a night for wild, new adventures. It's not a night for playing it safe, and many of the TV proms on this work hard to avoid just that. Most of the time, taking a few risks pays off. That's true for both the characters on these shows and the shows themselves.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer's prom episode comes near the culmination of the show's phenomenal third season. As Buffy attempts to keep some demons from crashing the festivities, we get a rare glimpse at how the rest of Buffy's classmates feel about the constant threat their school seems to be under.
They may not know the specifics, but they know that Buffy plays a huge role in keeping all of them safe. It's a moment of recognition for her that's also the end of a long journey. It works because it feels both hopeful and melancholy, and neither feeling overwhelms the other.
Glee wasn't always brilliant, but it definitely had its moments. In the climax of its first prom episode, two gay kids, one out and one closeted, are named prom king and queen. It's a moment that could be triumphant but feels cruel instead. It's a harsh reminder that, for many gay kids across the country, high school is the worst.
The show contains a number of excellent musical covers, including "Rolling in the Deep." The episode as a whole is far from perfect, but its climactic moment is a killer, and a reminder of what Glee could be when it wasn't getting in its own way.
The prom on Boy Meets World is a tribute to the many overeager boys who think about what happens after prom ends. For Cory and Topanga, their first time is riddled with mishaps as they poke each other in the eye, get stuck in various uncomfortable positions, and accidentally wander into the wrong room.
It's funny, of course, but it's also a reminder that sex can be awkward, especially the first time. These two kids are ready to do the deed, but that doesn't mean they're totally comfortable interacting with each other in that way. Sex can be wonderful, but only after lots of practice.
The characters on Friends aren't actually high schoolers, so the episode of Friends about prom is mostly told through videotapes from their lives before they were twentysomething NYC habitants. It's on those tapes that we discover that Ross almost took Rachel to the prom, only to be disappointed when her date showed up late, but at the last minute.
That footage is what ignites the romance between Ross and Rachel in the present. Without reliving the night of their prom, they may never have gotten together. It's a mixed blessing, given the years of drama they went through. Still, it makes the prom episode of Friends a truly iconic one.
There are plenty of shows on this list where some sort of alternative to prom is organized for the kids who are less cool than your traditional prom king or queen. Malcolm in the Middle is one of the shows that goes this route, as Malcolm tries to throw a party for the kids who will feel unwelcome at the actual prom.
As with so many shows, the prom episode comes just before graduation. For Malcolm, this episode also serves as a penultimate installment. It's our last chance to engage in some normal hi-jinks with all of the show's characters, and it does that well.
Saved by the Bell delivered one of the most romantic prom episodes ever. When Zack asks Kelly to go to the prom with him, she says yes before discovering that she can't afford to go. Although she struggles to tell Zack, he eventually finds out and throws her a low-key picnic prom.
Zack is willing to adjust to Kelly's needs, and give her the night she needs after her father loses his job. It's a well-written episode that earns the romantic moment at its center. Zack isn't always sweet and understanding, but on this episode, he's both of those things in abundance.
That '70s Show is a great show to put on for comfort, and its prom episode serves that purpose well. When Eric books a hotel room after the dance, the mood is ruined by screaming children. Prom is meant to be the culmination of your entire high school career, but on That '70s Show, the episode actually comes as part of the show's first season.
While this makes it feel a little less special, That '70s Show more than makes up for that with laughs. While the show's characters are fairly interesting, people come first and foremost for the laughs, and this episode is full of them.
Throughout its run, Gossip Girl was always about glamour and fashion, so the show's prom episode was naturally filled with both. The present-day storyline of the episode is told in parallel to the story of Serena's mother's rebellious youth. The prom elements, though, focus on Nate and Blair's relationship as it comes to an end.
There's a certain genius to the idea that Prom represents endings and new beginnings as much as anything else. For Nate and Blair, it means one last perfect moment before they separate forever. It's sweet and sad in equal measure, and surprisingly poignant for the show.
There's an alterna-prom on Veronica Mars, but it comes after the richest kids in school get the actual prom canceled. At the alterna-prom, Logan, who has been in love with Veronica forever, gives a speech that every Veronica Mars fan knows by heart. It's one of the series' defining moments, even if none of the students in attendance actually care that much about some dance.
Although the speech is definitely what fans remember from the episode, it also contains plenty of standard Veronica Mars gold. There's a mystery to be solved, and plenty of quippy one-liners to boot. It's everything an audience member could want.
The drama of Dawson's Creek's prom episode stems largely from Joey's various romantic entanglements. The show's central characters attend an "anti-prom" and Dawson goes with Joey. As the evening progresses, he attempts to win her back and make Pacey jealous at the same time. It's a classic love triangle.
Dawson's Creek was fueled by this romantic tension throughout its run, and the prom episode gave the show a chance to bubble all of those feelings to the surface. It's hard to write long-standing romantic arcs, but Dawson's Creek always knew how to make them compelling, including in this "anti-prom" episode.
The O.C. always knew how to bring the drama, and its prom episode is the perfect example of that. Things culminate in a fight, but before that, Summer is crowned Prom Queen and falls off the stage in a drunken stupor.
Throughout the episode, the show manages to integrate its plotlines in compelling ways, and there's plenty to contend with in this episode. The O.C. was thrilling because the show was willing to make drama out of virtually anything. There were fights, heartbreaks, breakups, and plenty of drinking and sex. It's one of the most entertaining shows there is, and the prom episode shows you why.
One Tree Hill's prom episode is considered one of the show's best, and that's because of the way so many dramatic developments come to a head as everyone reckons with the fallout of a sex tape that was discovered at a pre-prom bash.
The revelations in the video lead us to question Nathan's sexual history, in particular, but it forces everyone in Tree Hill to question their own relationships. The video is something of a bombshell, and in this episode, every character works through the fallout against the backdrop of prom. That's what makes the episode so consistently compelling as it jumps from character to character.
Most of the time, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a light, fun show about a boy who gets transported to a world of exorbitant wealth. Every once in a while, though, the show would get serious about what this clash might mean. This happens when Will's cousin Carlton accidentally takes speed from Will's locker, not knowing what it is.
As the prom unfolds, it becomes clear that something is wrong with Carlton. Eventually, he faints and ends up in the hospital. This forces Will to reckon with the adverse impact of his own recklessness in compelling ways. It's a dramatic episode, but one that works.
The prom episode of Full House is all about D.J.'s relationship with Steve, which is as it should be. Although D.J. is only a sophomore, Steve is a senior, and the episode revolves around Steve potentially getting back with his ex-girlfriend. When she plants a kiss on Steve after the two of them are named prom king and queen, D.J. initially believes all hope is lost.
Of course, eventually, Steve reassures her that the kiss meant nothing to Steve, and their relationship lands back where it started. These crazy kids were meant to be together, and even though prom brought some drama, it all worked out in the end.
Parenthood gives us a rare look at prom night through the eyes of the parents, and it's interesting to see what that shift in perspective does for the episode. Instead of focusing on how the kids are experiencing their prom, we see a nervous dad unsure whether his daughter is ready to go off to prom alone with a boy.
In a way, we get to see what prom means for not just kids but also their parents. It's a moment of release. These kids are free to have fun on their wild night, and they're entering adulthood, whether the parents like it or not.
Smallville gave its prom a supernatural twist. The episode tells the story of Dawn Stiles, an overeager prom queen candidate who falls into a car crash after landing in a ravine filled with kryptonite. In her coma, Dawn discovers that she can inhabit the bodies of other people. By doing so, she continues her quest for the crown.
The episode's dramatic thrust comes from that possession. Like Buffy, the show gives us a sense of what the superpowered folks are doing in order to keep the entire prom from being ruined. After all, it's their big night, and it would stink if some supernatural force ruined it.