Prom night is a special rite of passage for high schoolers, and television shows have long covered the event accordingly. It’s also full of stress, which TV has also depicted fairly accurately. There’s just so much to worry about: What dress? What tux? What corsage? Who do you ask? Should they ask you? Should you rent a car? Can you even dance? Where will you go afterward? Whether or not you really want to participate, you’ll still feel pressured to try to take part, by your friends, parents, and the looming cultural motifs at large.
Because, really, TV and movies are partly to blame for the massive weight we tend to put on prom night. It’s developed an aura of importance over the decades, being re-created in iterations both realistic and less so, to the point where we feel as if we’re missing a big part of our youth if we give in and skip prom.
We’ve put together a handy list of nine TV episodes that not only portray prom in all of its glory and drama, but in some cases show characters against the prom celebrating their own way — for inspiration, if you need it.
1. “The Prom,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 3, Episode 20)
In “The Prom,” Buffy is suffering from all the normal teen problems — like wanting Angel to join her at the senior prom like a normal boyfriend. However, after Joyce gives him a talking-to about getting in the way of her future, Angel decides to break up with Buffy for her own good — leaving her dateless. On top of that, the Scoobies are also attempting to not only stop the mayor but prevent a load of hellhounds from being released on prom night, so Buffy is feeling pretty down about having to be the slayer. However, when it’s class awards time, Jonathan gifts Buffy the trophy of “Class Protector” due to a lot of “write-in ballots.” He reads a very sweet speech acknowledging that the students know Buffy has protected everyone in the school — contributing to the 1999 class’s “record-breaking low mortality rate.” Angel even comes through in the end, proving that miracles can happen on prom night.
2. “Morp,” Malcolm in the Middle (Season 7, Episode 21)
Prom generally requires you to have a few things: (A) the money to at least buy a dress or tux, (B) the friends to go with, and (C) to ability to look good while you do it. That leads to a lot of students feeling unwelcome or uncomfortable at prom, which is why a lot of these episodes are actually about people forming their own anti-Establishment alliances. In “Morp,” Malcolm aligns himself with the other unpopular kids to form an anti-prom called morp (yes, it’s just “prom” spelled backward). Elsewhere, Reese gets paid to take a nerdy girl to the senior prom. It’s inspirational to nerds everywhere: You can still have your big night; you just might have to do it your way.
3. “The Senior Prom,” Saved by the Bell (Season 5, Episode 17)
For all the great teen shows, prom episodes are basically mandatory, and Saved by the Bell is no exception. In this one, the gang needs to raise the money to ensure prom happens at all. However, Zack ruins everything when he finds out Kelly has a date to prom and gets jealous. He sabotages her date, leading her to agree to attend with him … until, of course, she finds out the truth. Getting the date you want to prom leads to some pretty high-tension situations in real life, too, but if there’s one thing to be learned here, it’s that subterfuge isn’t the way to any girl’s heart.
4. “Prom Night,” That ‘70s Show (Season 1, Episode 19)
Across a lot of the media depictions of prom, perhaps the most common trope is that it’s the night people lose their virginities to their significant others. In this That ’70s Show episode, Eric preemptively rents a hotel room for prom night, hoping to take his relationship with Donna to the next step. But the motel room falls below his expectation — it’s too grubby and too loud. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang aren’t having a much better time of it, as Jackie forces Hyde to take her, and Fez convinces himself that his English teacher has a great big crush on him. Basically, everyone’s prom falls short of expectations. It’s a valuable lesson, really, that the more you build these things up in your head, the more disappointed you’re likely to be.
5. “The Anti-Prom,” Dawson’s Creek (Season 3, Episode 22)
Yep, you guessed it, it’s another episode where the less popular students take things into their own hands to rally against the Establishment prom. In Dawson’s Creek, Dawson, Joey, and Andie do it for all the right reasons when they learn that the prom committee is against Jack taking Ethan as his date. At the anti-prom, Dawson attempts to win Joey back and make Pacey jealous. There are all kinds of other interpersonal drama between the teens, but ultimately, it’s a pretty heartwarming episode centered on friendship and support for LGBTQ students.
6. “Valley Girls,” Gossip Girl (Season 2, Episode 24)
Now, nothing has ever gone smoothly on Gossip Girl’s Upper East Side, so why would prom be any different? In “Valley Girls,” Serena convinces Blair to try to go to prom with Nate, just as she had always dreamed. However, despite Blair’s obsessive scrapbook planning, everything inexplicably goes wrong — including the car, hotel reservation, and even Blair’s dress. Chuck denies any involvement, but he does foil a plot by some of the other students to humiliate Blair before admitting that of course he had been messing with her plans. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I guess the lesson to be learned is not to trust anyone with your secret scrapbooks? Especially if they’re not so secretly in love with you.
7. “Just Say Yo,” Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Season 3, Episode 19)
Around senior year, students have a whole lot on top of prom to deal with. It’s not uncommon, both on TV and in real life, for teens to turn to drugs to relieve the pressure of all of their commitments. In the iconic Fresh Prince episode “Just Say Yo,” Will, with prom drawing near, is starting to feel the effects of juggling his girlfriend, his job, his homework, and basketball practice. One of his classmates notices that he’s tired and offers him some speed to perk him up a bit. Will takes it but, still uncertain, stores it in his locker. At the same time, Carlton is panicking about a pimple, so Will tells him to take vitamins … which leads Carlton to take what he believes is vitamin E from Will’s locker. He ends up taking too much and, dramatically, passes out on the dance floor, but covers for Will when his parents ask where the drugs were from. Will breaks down and confesses the truth, and while this episode is far more about Will’s pressures and his relationship with Carlton, it shows just how far a lot of teenagers go to keep up with everyone’s senior-year expectations of them.
8. “Prom Night at Hater High,” One Tree Hill (Season 4, Episode 15)
Who could make prom night more dramatic than the students at Tree Hill High? In this season-four episode, people’s plans start to go up in flames after everyone watches a sex tape of Nathan and Brooke. Upset, Haley asks Nathan for a list of all of his sexual encounters — something that never goes well for anyone. Peyton gives Brooke a black eye and tries to skip prom, but eventually Lucas convinces her … only for Derek to show up and knock her out. It’s all very stressful, but honestly it does serve as comfort: However your prom goes, it really can’t get any worse than this one.
9. “The Party Favor,” The O.C. (Season 3, Episode 23)
Naturally, Ryan isn’t all that excited for a Harbor High prom. Still, Seth convinces him to go, and attempts to woo Summer into going with him. He gets brutally rejected while the other teens scramble for dates, leading to Summer and Taylor attending with K-Pop stars. Seth takes Anna, upsetting Summer, who gets wasted and falls off the stage after accepting her crown. Still, after an episode full of lies and deceit, Seth confesses everything to Summer and apologizes, leading her to confess her love. Ryan almost kills Marissa’s date for stealing money from the party, making it a full house for The O.C. tropes in this episode. Love! Lies! Deception! Money! Near-death fights! It must be a Newport party …