It's the title.
No matter how much I praise this show, no matter how I describe its intricate depiction of teen life, people still wriggle up their noses when they hear the name "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Some folks probably think she's a cousin of "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch." Unlike that light-hearted Friday night sitcom, "Buffy" is a sometimes deep, frequently funny and ultimately realistic portrayal of the inner emotional lives of teens.
Most adolescents aren't charged with saving the world from vampires and demons, but at that age everything seems like the ultimate drama, every heartbreak seems like the end of the world. So it is for Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who also bears the burden of slaying beasts of every stripe.
On Tuesday (8 p.m. on The WB) Buffy goes to the prom, but not before hunting down "hell hounds" and suffering romantic strife with her vampire beau, Angel (David Boreanaz).
As in the best "Buffy" episodes, "The Prom," written by Marti Noxon, deftly mixes relationship melodrama, monster brawls and snappy humor.
Relationship melodrama: Buffy has not had an easy relationship with Angel. First of all, he's a vampire. It's her job to destroy vampires.
Luckily, Angel was a vamp with a soul. But then he and Buffy had sex, which activated a spell that turned him evil (the ultimate promotion for sexual abstinence). He's since had his soul restored, but any further intimacy with Buffy is out of the question.
Tuesday Angel realizes it's not in Buffy's best interest for them to be a couple in the long-term. Plus, he's getting a spin-off series of his own on The WB this fall.
Brainy friend Willow (the luminous Alyson Hannigan) comforts Buffy after a wrenching talk with Angel.
"I think 'horrible' is still coming; right now is 'worse,' " Buffy says between sobs. "I can't breathe, I feel like I can't breathe."
What teen hasn't felt like that way in the course of romantic turmoil? For all its trappings as a monster mash, "Buffy" is closer to the soul-baring drama of "My So-Called Life" than a horror flick.
Monster brawls: I've heard complaints from some parents who think "Buffy" is too violent. After the school shootings in Denver, The WB pulled an episode of the series about students plotting to attack Sunnydale High. The timing of the episode was unfortunate, and admittedly the show often carries a TV-14, V (for violence) parental guideline rating.
I respect the opinions of parents and value the fact they actually know what their kids are watching, but I doubt Buffy's bouts with monster baddies will inspire mayhem.
Some elements of popular culture glorify anti-social behavior, but "Buffy" is not among them. Though used occasionally, guns are not prevalent on the series. The violence is generally hand-to-hand combat and kickboxing.
Buffy and her friends are semi-outcasts, but they don't take out their social frustrations on fellow students. Rather, they save them from destruction on a weekly basis. Tuesday, Buffy even gets acknowledgment for her life-saving efforts.
If any show deals with the issue of personal responsibility and consequences of one's actions, this is it.
Buffy doesn't kill humans, only monsters. In a recent episode when fellow vampire slayer Faith (Eliza Dushku) accidentally staked a human, it was a big deal. Faith was swayed to join the evil plans of Sunnydale's mayor (Harry Groener), and a final confrontation between good and evil will mark the show's two-part season finale May 18 and 25.
Some shows that traffic in the teen experience only portray certain aspects of their characters. On "Buffy," the "Scooby Gang" is well-rounded, complex and ultimately a good group of kids. Although Xander and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) have been arguing since their breakup last fall, he shows his true stripes Tuesday by selflessly helping her in a time of need. That's not bad modeling behavior.
Another sentiment that runs through "Buffy" is the need for parental involvement in the lives of children. Buffy's parents are divorced and her Watcher, school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), frequently fills in as a surrogate father.
Buffy's mom (Kristine Sutherland) knows her daughter has to protect Sunnydale from the forces of evil emanating from the hellmouth beneath the town, but she remains involved in her daughter's life. There's a scene Tuesday that teens are likely to disapprove of because they'll see Buffy's mom as a buttinski, but parents will recognize she's simply trying to protect her daughter.
Humor: "Buffy" can be a dark show, no doubt about it. But there's enough humor to make it more palatable than, say, the dour episodes of "Felicity."
In "The Prom," Anya (recurring guest star Emma Caulfield), a demon trapped in the body of a high school senior, complains to Xander (Nicholas Brendon), "I have witnessed a millennium of drudgery and oppression from the males of this species and I have nothing but contempt for them. ... Men are evil."
Then she quickly adds, "Will you go [to the prom] with me?"
The kids on "Buffy" often speak in a pop culture-infused language that perfectly conveys what they mean to others in the know.
"Gotta stop a crazy from pulling a 'Carrie' at the prom," Buffy says in Tuesday's episode.
There's really no question she'll succeed. The forces of evil may take a few battles on "Buffy," but good ultimately wins the war.
Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more TV news, go to www.post-gazette.com/tv.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday on The WB.
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, David Boreanaz