The problem with reviewing The Prom is that it's kind of difficult to relate to.
Being a decrepit dinosaur, in my day (last three words typed in the creaky voice of an old fart), there wasn't such a big deal with end of year proms – shindigs and hootenannys maybe, but tame stuff compared to today. 10 mile limousines can be seen from miles on end in the 21st century, ferrying tuxedo and frock-clad youngsters, who always seem to be dwarfed by the massive upholstery of the swanky poshmobiles. I suppose it seemed to be a bigger thing in the US, and was just one of those things that caught on in Britain a bit later.
Proms are the stuff of movie legends, whether you're a fan of horror (Carrie), '80s brat pack flicks (Pretty In Pink) or heavily sideburned cheese (Grease), so it's only right that Buffy The Vampire Slayer signs off its Sunnydale High days with its very own tuxedoed festivities. The inevitable “It's on a Hellmouth” caveat comes into play here, and sure enough, evil's brewing faster than a cup of tea.
What's not so inevitable is that unusually, the main threat is comparatively inconsequential. If the hellhounds are remembered by viewers, then it's really only because they are the first thing to be seen in the opening titles of Season Four after the logo's done it's floaty disassemble mojo. These evil mutts are the work of a spurned nerd called Tucker Wells.
Poor Tucker couldn't get a date to the prom, and so, in true Billy-No-Mates style, plans to spoil everyone else's fun by breeding and training the hellhounds to destroy any person unlucky enough to be at the prom (or even in prom getup, as the clothing shop scene testifies). It's small fry stuff by Buffy standards. Tucker's never seen again, although his equally dorky brother Andrew will play a heftier part in the last two seasons of the show. Mind you, Tucker can be heard again – or rather the guy playing him, Brad Kane – who can be heard as the crooning voice of Jonathan in Season Four's Superstar. There you are, there's your Buffy Bonus Round question answered for you. No thanks are required.
Buffy manages to dispose of these deadly hellhounds pretty fast. They are killed in various gruesome ways and then buried under several feet of Sunnydale turf. While memorably grotesque to look at and also fairly handy with teeth and claws (as the luckless whiteshirt in the clothing boutique finds to his chagrin), the hellhounds are no more than the token monster of the week. This episode's not bothered with focusing on monsters and demons (The Mayor and Faith are taking their regular fortnightly sabbatical again). Instead, it's concentrating more on tying up loose ends and saluting a heroine who's time and again saved the world without so much as a curtsey. Because the finale focuses more on both action and wrapping up the Mayor's subplot, The Prom becomes the dumping ground for all of the other Scooby life stuff.
In the case of Buffy and Angel, it literally is the dumping ground. Bangel or Anuffy – whatever you want to call this pairing – have been building up to this sorrowful parting of the ways for quite some time. Buffy's been coming and going from the relationship this season more times than the Slater family In EastEnders. Angel's impersonation of Angelus threw up some jealousy issues. Even the Mayor said his piece in typically authoritative fashion.
To hammer the final nail in the coffin is none other than Joyce. It's a bit weird seeing Joyce drop into Angel's pad. Possibly it's on her way to work and she fancied taking the scenic route. But her real agenda becomes clear when she drops some none too subtle hints about Buffy's future. As Angel himself notes, he's old enough to be Buffy's ancestor. It's final confirmation that this relationship can't drive off into the sunset with a final smooch at the driving wheel.
As far as dumping goes, Angel manages to pick the worst possible time to walk away from the relationship. With the prom looming close, Buffy's picturing her and Angel smooching on the dancefloor to some time honoured classic such as Chris De Burgh's 'Lady In Red' or any track from the Lionel Richie oeuvre. Instead, Angel quickly tramples these happy thoughts into the dirt. Not only does he call their relationship a freak show, he categorically says that he doesn't want to be with Buffy any more (although he's probably thinking otherwise).
The final insult is Angel's announcement that he's leaving town as soon as the Ascension stuff is done and dusted. Well, maybe he's tempted by a certain spin-off show waiting in the wings... As with plenty of other heavy drama sequences in Buffy, it's a scene that pulls no punches. Marti Noxon's sharp, from-the-heart writing is bolstered further by dependably good work from Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz. Boreanaz is worth noting here, given how he's come on leaps and bounds from his less assured work in the first season. Scenes like this prove that Boreanaz can carry his own show. Angel's brutal, no-nonsense goodbye can't quite hide his quiet heartbreak at having to leave someone that he loves for her own good, and Boreanaz's subtle delivery brings this across well.
If you're looking for more conventional heartbreak to sob along to, then Gellar's your reliable source. Following on from Sobapaloozas One and Two in Innocence and Becoming, Gellar provides her hat-trick in typically raw, primal fashion. “I can't breathe, Will,” she sobs in her friend's lap, and you believe her. It's sterling sobbing of the weepiest order.
It's bittersweet scenes like these that make The Prom so much more than sentimental slop. There's also Xander's discovery that Cordy's stone cold broke. Happening to pass into the store where Cordelia works, he's stunned to learn that Daddy Chase has been hit with a whopping great tax bill that he hasn't got round to paying for some years now. Some may say this is Cordelia's just rewards, especially if they've been sitting through the first season DVD again. Cordelia now has no money, no swanky home and no real future, given that she can't afford to go to college any more. But Xander does offer some small crumb of comfort in a sweet scene in which we find out that he's paid for the prom dress that she's been longing to buy. After Xander's dopey behaviour in earlier Season Three episodes such as Lover's Walk, it's nice to see him grow up and round off this most unlikely of relationships in mature, generous style. It's closure to a relationship that at least sees them part on good terms.
As one door closes, another opens for Xander. Through the door comes Anya, with perhaps the most reluctant chat-up line in the history of dating. Seeking a date to the prom, Anya's pitch is “Men are evil. Will you go with me?” It's typical Anya bluntness – she has no conception of social skills whatsoever, although she's trying her hardest by fishing for compliments to Xander. The best she can do is to claim that Xander is less obnoxious than other Alpha males. Evidently, this proves to be the breakthrough line for Xander, and since the only alternative is the best-not-thought-about sock puppet of lurve, the first stumbling steps of Xanya begin.
Anya trying to be nice. Xander making it up with Cordelia. What's going on in Sunnydale? There's evidently some unnatural niceness epidemic in the air – which has clearly spread to all of the students at Sunnydale High. It's seen in the scene in which prizes are doled out to various deserving (or undeserving in the case of the most rubbish class clown ever) students. Having endured three years of Cordelia bitching and a reputation as a social outcast, Buffy is staggered when she receives a Class Protector award from the whole school. The Class Protector award is admittedly a bit naff – it's a tacky umbrella thing caked in plastic bling, and looks like it was stolen from Liberace's dressing room.
But it's a sweet sentiment all the same. It helps that Jonathan's wheeled on to give the award to her – after the traumatic events of Earshot, Jonathan is living proof that Buffy can make a difference and can help people (it's also nice to see that Jonathan finally lands himself a date at the prom). His speech is expertly written by Noxon: “We're not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you, but that doesn't mean we haven't noticed you...” sums up Sunnydale High's quiet gratitude before recognising Buffy's contribution to fallen mortality rates: “Most of the people here have been saved by you, or helped by you at one time or another. We're proud to say that the Class of '99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history. And we know at least part of that is because of you.” This could have been seriously sappy stuff, and yet, it's actually quite moving to see Buffy finally get some sort of recognition. Giles' proud father figure look is worthy of note – again, he's been the quiet voice of support throughout this episode to Buffy, offering ice cream and sympathy in the wake of her break-up.
As Oz points out about the prom, the episode is strangely affecting. It may have some of the lousiest music going (nice to see Buffy snorting with derision at Kool And The Gang's 'Celebration'), but it's still a party in which the regulars can relax and for once, not worry about impending disaster. All of the regulars are catered for well – even down to Oz's supreme confidence in Buffy defeating the hellhounds and Wesley's bumbling attempts at asking Cordy for a dance: “For God's sake, man, she's 18,” harrumphs Giles. “And you have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”
At times, The Prom borders on mawkish, but I guess that after three seasons, the show's earned that right. There's an undercurrent of bittersweet running through the story to get things from getting too slushy. While Angel does provide Buffy with her dream prom moment, there's still that bitter edge that it can't be anything more. The last dance is particularly well arranged as a result of good camera work panning along the Buffy regulars dancing away the fears for three minutes, and also the well-chosen track, a lovely cover of The Rolling Stones' 'Wild Horses' by The Sundays.
The calm before the storm, The Prom is essentially one last love song to the Sunnydale High era of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Action-packed drama fans may tend to overlook this one, but the reliably rock solid crew have put together another winner. David Solomon turns in some of his best work, with scenes such as Angel's nightmare sticking in the mind (in which for once, Buffy burns in the harsh light of day). Marti Noxon's finely tuned script ensures a lump-in-the-throat experience which deftly avoids corny schmaltz. And of course, the regular cast adeptly provide emotions for all occasions, whether it's humour, drama or heartbreak.
It's the last dance saloon for the Scoobies, and things may never be quite the same again...