"Homeland" ended "Mad Men"s' dominance, scoring Showtime its first Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series on Sunday night, while "Modern Family" continued its winning streak by picking up its third consecutive Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.
As befitting a presidential election year, Emmy voters rewarded "Game Change" for looking at another contentious White House run from the recent past. The HBO film nabbed an Outstanding Miniseries or Movie Emmy Award for its look at John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, giving the cable network its biggest prize of the night.
Also read: Emmys 2012: Complete List of Winners
Emmy voters endorsed "Homeland" in a big way, while allowing Showtime to take several victory laps for backing the freshman series, which takes on hot-button topics like Middle Eastern terrorism. Had "Mad Men" won, it would have been the first drama series to win five consecutive statues in the top category. Instead it had the ignominious distinction of receiving 17 nominations without earning a single win — giving it the record for the biggest shut-out in Emmy history.
AMC, which backs "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," had to stay seated and watch "Homeland" snag the leading acting and writing categories as well.
HBO was the most honored network of the evening, picking up 23 awards primarily from the movies and miniseries categories, while CBS was second with 16 wins and PBS was third with 12 wins.
Although Showtime only scored six awards, the network was clearly the night's big victor, now that it has a top-shelf program that puts it on the level of its more critically lauded rivals.
As host, Jimmy Kimmel poked gentle fun at Hollywood, sending up plastic surgery and reality shows, without truly biting the hand that feeds it in the manner of, say, Ricky Gervais. His edgiest bit was probably having his parents ejected from the theater for saying he had what it took to be an Emmy winner (his "Jimmy Kimmel Live" lost to "The Daily Show").
The two biggest acting prizes in the drama category were "Homeland" affairs. Claire Danes won her second Emmy for her starring turn as a CIA analyst suffering from bipolar disorder on the freshman show. In a breathless speech, the pregnant Danes thanked her "baby daddy" Hugh Dancy, as well as her fellow cast members.
"The entire cast is just uniformally, shameless talented and I'm so honored to be in their company," Danes said.
Right before she took the stage, Danes' co-star Damian Lewis upset perennial winner Bryan Cranston to capture Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
"I don't really believe in judging art, but I thought I'd show up just in case," Lewis joked.
Lewis' portrayal of a terrorist sympathizer in the Showtime thriller was gripping and grueling enough to score him his first award and hold off a challenge from "Breaking Bad's" Cranston.
Calling himself a pesky Brit, the English actor hailed his fellow nominees as evidence that this was a "golden age in television."
On the comedy front, Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her third Emmy for her role as an ambitious, conniving and politically inept vice president on HBO's "Veep."
People say that this is a comedy, but I don't see anything funny about me being vice president of the United States," Louis-Dreyfus said.
However, she gave a hilarious speech that will be making the highlight reels with a gag that had Louis-Dreyfus pretend to read from fellow nominee Amy Poehler's acceptance speech.
In a stunning upset, Jon Cryer won his second Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for "Two and a Half Men" over the heavily favored Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory").
A visibly shocked Cryer alluded to the unexpected nature of his victory by saying "don't panic, people, something has clearly gone terribly wrong."
It was Cryer's first win and nomination as Outstanding Lead Actor having previously been nominated and won in the supporting category. It was a season that saw Cryer and the hit CBS sitcom move on after a contentious and highly publicized break-up with Charlie Sheen and bring a new co-star in the form of Ashton Kutcher on board. It's possible that Cryer's victory was as much an award for endurance as humor.
Julianne Moore scored an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for playing Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin in "Game Change."
"I feel so validated because Sarah Palin gave me a big thumbs down," Moore said.
The HBO film also picked up awards for directing for Jay Roach and for writing for Danny Strong.
One area where "Game Change" had to concede ground was Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, which saw Woody Harrelson lose to another movie star, Kevin Costner.
Costner now has an Emmy Award to go along with his Oscar, picking up his first statue in a career that has primarily unfolded on the big screen for his role in the hit History series "Hatfields & McCoys."
"I love being an actor," Costner said. "I love this life, it's changed my life, I don't know what I would do if I didn't have it."
Also read: Emmys 2012: Red Carpet Arrivals (Photos)
Although Bryan Cranston saw Emmy voters finally cool to his explosive performance, Aaron Paul won his second Emmy Award for his portrayal of a meth cook on AMC's "Breaking Bad," beating out his co-star Giancarlo Esposito to nab the statue.
The Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series winner noted that his character wasn't supposed to survive the show's first season, thanking "Breaking Bad's" creator for sparing him.
"Vince Gilligan thanks so much for not killing me off," Paul joked.
"Modern Family" continued to be a force to be reckoned with in the supporting awards, with Julie Bowen and Eric Stonestreet both winning their second Emmys.
In her acceptance speech, Bowen, who plays a harried wife and mother on the show, gave a shout-out to her co-star and fellow nominee Sofia Vergara.
"Sofia, I know you're younger than me, but I want to be you when I grow up," Bowen said.
Stonestreet, honored for playing one half of a gay couple, acknowledged his on-screen lover Jesse Tyler Ferguson in his acceptance speech.
"There is no Cam without Mitch," Stonestreet said.
The straight Stonestreet said it was an honor to show Americans that gay couples could be just as committed and supportive as heterosexual ones, but noted that there were unforeseen perks to playing one of the small screen's most prominent gay characters.
"I love the pictures of hairy chests you guys are sending me," he joked.
Maggie Smith won an Emmy Award of her role as the imperious Dowager Countess on PBS' "Downton Abbey," but the legendary English actress was not on hand to pick up her honor.
Jessica Lange's chilling performance as a demented neighbor on "American Horror Story" scared Emmy voters into awarding her the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Movie.
Lange said that "American Horror Story" made her more promises than any man she'd ever met, but noted happily that they had come true with her victory Sunday night.
Tom Berenger helped continue a career resurgence that began with a supporting part in 2010's "Inception," scoring an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series or Movie in "Hatfields & McCoys."
Berenger won for portraying an intemperate warlord who he described as "a cross between a raccoon with rabies and a demented garden gnome."
With its satiric take on the day's political news still razor sharp, "The Daily Show" continued to be an awards heavy weight, picking up its tenth Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Series.
"We were told we'd get a free sandwich after ten," Stewart said.
Also finding itself in the winner's circle was "The Amazing Race," which beat out challengers like "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Voice" to nab the Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.
But "Dancing With the Stars" did not go home empty handed. Tom Bergeron picked up an Emmy for his role as ringmaster on the dancing competition series.
Bergeron poked good-natured fun at his fellow nominee Betty White ("Betty White’s Off Their Rockers") by saying his victory was satisfying because "Betty White always kicks my ass in our mixed martial arts class."
Kimmel started the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards with a bang, saying that Hollywood had assembled to celebrate "the only American product the Chinese haven't learned how to make."
In a prickly monologue he poked fun at Emmy voters abiding love for English shows like "Downton Abbey," saying Americans had an inferiority complex because they were discovered at the mall while the Brits were trained by the Royal Shakespeare Company and HBO's canceled "Luck," which was pulled after several horses died. Kimmel warned HBO afterparty-goers to avoid the sliders.
He also noted that the television business was a liberal bastion and that Republicans like Kelsey Grammer were about as popular as a "Chick-fil-A sandwich on the snack table at 'Glee.'"
The evening began with a humorous backstage video of Emmy nominees and TV stars sending up showbiz egos and "Girls" star Lena Dunham's propensity for nudity — as well as the failed experiment with having reality show hosts take over emcee duties for the show. In it, actors like Kathy Bates ("Harry's Law") and Julia Louis-Dreyfus ("Veep") pummeled Kimmel to help him recover from a botched botox job.
Among the early winners were Louis C.K. who won for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Show for "Louie" and Steve Levitan, who kept the "Modern Family" streak going strong with a win for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. C.K. would pick up two awards on Sunday, scoring a second writing door stop for his comedy special "Louis C.K. Live At The Beacon Theatre."
Glen Weiss, who won an Emmy for directing the Tony Awards broadcast, accepted his statue from backstage where he was directing the show taking place on screen. He jokingly insisted that the band start playing him off as he'd exceeded his allotted time — something that was as common on Sunday's broadcast as clip reels and shout outs to agents.