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 honors.
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 honors for her troubled CIA agent in Homeland.
Danes, who won her second trophy for the terrorism drama, paid tribute to one of the series’ writers, Henry Bromell, who died in March and who received a writing Emmy posthumously Sunday.
The ceremony often struck a melancholy note, with extended tributes to stars and other industry members who died in the past year.
“Well, this may be the saddest Emmys of all time but we could not be happier,” said Modern Family executive producer Steve Levitan.
It also included upsets, defying the conventional wisdom in several categories, including acting categories.
Danes’ win ended the hopes that Scandal best actress nominee Kerry Washington would become the first African-American to win in the category since Cicely Tyson in 1995 for Sweet Justice.
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.
Parsons added to the awards he won in 2011 and 2010 for the role of a science nerd.
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.
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.
Laura Linney was named best actress in a miniseries or movie for The Big C: Hereafter. The Voice won best reality-competition program, and Tina Fey won for writing 30 Rock.
Michael Douglas was honored as best actor for his portrayal of Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, besting co-star Matt Damon. The film also captured a top trophy as best movie or miniseries.
Bobby Cannavale, from Boardwalk Empire, won as best supporting actor in a drama, and Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad won the best actress award in the same category.
In the variety show category, The Colbert Report broke a 10-year winning streak held by The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. It also won for best writing for a variety show.
The ceremony’s first hour was relatively somber, with memorial tributes and a doleful song by Elton John in honor of the late musical star Liberace, the subject of the nominated biopic Behind the Candelabra.
Robin Williams offered another tribute. “Jonathan Winters was my mentor,” Williams said of the actor-comedian. “I told him that and he said, ‘Please, I prefer idol.’”
Also honored 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 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.”
Edie Falco recalled her late Sopranos co-star James Gandolfini, saluting him for his “fierce loyalty” to his friends and family and his work with military veterans.
Diahann Carroll, the first African-American Emmy nominee, in 1963 for Naked City, created one of the night’s most heartfelt moments when she took the stage with Washington and noted the importance of diversity in the industry and Emmys.