Breaking Bad, the brutal saga of an everyman's ambition turned evil, captured its first best drama Emmy Award on Sunday, while Modern Family won its fourth consecutive trophy for top comedy series.
"I did not see this coming," said Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, tipping his hat to competitor House Of Cards, the first online contender for top Emmy honours.
Jeff Daniels won the Emmy for best drama series actor for his portrayal of an idealistic TV anchorman in The Newsroom, with Claire Danes capturing top actress honours for her troubled CIA agent in Homeland.
"With all due respect to the AARP, this is even better," Daniels said.
Danes, who captured her second trophy for the terrorism drama, paid tribute to one of the series' writers, Henry Bromell, who died last March and who received a writing Emmy posthumously.
The ceremony often struck a melancholy note with extended tributes to stars and other industry members who died in the past year.
It also included upsets, defying the conventional wisdom in several categories, including acting categories.
"This just in. Nobody in America is winning their Emmy office pool. Surprises galore," host Neil Patrick Harris.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus claimed her second consecutive best comedy actress award for her role as an ambitious political second banana in Veep, with Jim Parsons again claiming the top comedy acting trophy for The Big Bang Theory.
"This is so much good fortune it's almost too much to bear," said Louis-Dreyfus. "I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to make people laugh. It's a joyful way to make a living."
Parsons added to the awards he won in 2011 and 2010 for the role of a science nerd.
"My heart, oh my heart. I want you to know I'm very aware of how exceedingly fortunate I am," he said.
Merritt Wever of Nurse Jackie won the night's first award, for best supporting actress in a comedy series, kicking off the ceremony on a surprising note and with a remarkably brief acceptance speech.
"Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Um, I got to go, bye," Wever told the audience after besting a field that included two-time winner Julie Bowen of Modern Family.
"Merritt Wever, best speech ever," host Neil Patrick Harris said.
Backstage, she offered an explanation: "I'm sorry I didn't thank anyone. I was going to cry."
Tony Hale of Veep claimed the trophy for best supporting actor in a comedy, a category that has been the property in recent years of the men of Modern Family.
"Oh, man.... This is mindblowing, mindblowing," Hale said.
"This is a two-hander and Matt, you're only as good as your other hand," Douglas said, then got really racy: "You want the bottom or the top?"
The ceremony's first hour was relatively sombre, with memorial tributes and a doleful song by Elton John in honour of the late musical star Liberace, the subject of the nominated biopic Behind the Candelabra.
"Liberace left us 25 years ago and what a difference those years have made to people like me," said Sir Elton, who is openly gay in contrast to the closeted Liberace portrayed in the TV movie.
Also honoured was Cory Monteith, the Glee star who died at age 31 in July of a drug and alcohol overdose. "His death is a tragic reminder of the rapacious, senseless destruction that is brought on by addiction," said his co-star Jane Lynch.
The inclusion of Monteith as one of five extended goodbyes despite his abbreviated career and the exclusion of such enduring stars as Jack Klugman and Larry Hagman drew criticism from some. Adam Klugman, son of The Odd Couple actor, called his father's omission "criminal".
"You all knew Jim the actor. I was lucky enough to know Jim the man," she said.