It was funny, bright and skillfully hosted by "Glee" star Jane Lynch.
It moved at a brisk clip, free of the usual stumbles and lulls, and, even better, it flowed almost seamlessly, a next-to-impossible feat for any awards show.
Production values at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles were eye-popping, from the setting — an omega-shaped arch through which presenters made their entrance — to a tour-de-force comic musical number spearheaded by Andy Samberg and fellow "Saturday Night Live" performers that might have had some viewers scratching their heads in bewilderment, but had to leave them dazzled nonetheless.
Yes, "Modern Family" cleaned up — winning five Emmys (including best comedy, supporting acting trophies for TV parents Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell, and best writing and direction).
But Mark Burnett, the pasha of reality TV, was the night's behind-the-scenes winner. Taking over for the first time as executive producer of the Emmys, he gave it a rare measure of class and pizzazz.
Best of all with the Emmys, there were startling surprises among the winners — and none undeserving.
After weeks of speculation over who would win for best actor in a drama (the long-denied Jon Hamm for "Mad Men" or Hugh Laurie for "House"?), Kyle Chandler's name was called for his performance as a Texas high school football coach in the final season of "Friday Night Lights."
"I knew for a fact I would not be standing here. I did not write anything and now I'm starting to worry," said Chandler with a palpable mix of unease and joy. It was a glorious moment for him as well as for the show, which was critically acclaimed but struggled for an audience while its never-say-die football team played by the motto: "Clear eyes, full hearts can't lose."
Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" earned his second trophy in the best actor category — no big surprise.
But Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly" rocked the room as she was honored as best lead actress in a comedy series with an Emmy and a glitzy prom queen's crown.
"Wow! It's my first and best pageant ever," said the beaming McCarthy, who, moments earlier, had broken with tradition along with her fellow nominees by jumping up on stage as their names were called. This display of solidarity earned them a standing ovation from many in the audience.
It was a night of good will, even from bad boy Charlie Sheen, a surprise presenter.
Sheen, who has been on a fence-mending TV tour of late, presented the lead comedy actor award, but took time onstage to make nice with his former "Two and a Half Men" colleagues. In March, he was fired from the show after bitterly clashing with its producer and studio, and was subsequently replaced by Ashton Kutcher. But on the Emmycast he seemed intent on burying the hatchet.
"From the bottom of my heart, I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season," he said, addressing the "Men" cast and crew.."I know you will continue to make great television."
Julianna Margulies scored top drama acting honors for "The Good Wife," a not-unexpected win for a popular actress on a popular series.
But a great Emmy moment came courtesy of Margo Martindale, named best supporting actress for the series "Justified," where she wowed viewers with her portrayal of a hillbilly mobster mom.
"Sometimes, things just take time," said the veteran actress, nearly overcome with emotion. "But with time comes great appreciation."
Another nominee more familiar by sight than by name — the physically diminutive Peter Dinklage — was a surprising but apt choice for best actor in the category for his powerful performance in the sci-fi fantasy "Game of Thrones."
The night's first two presenters, the late-night Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel, made light of the fact that, for eight years running, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" has seized the Emmy for variety, music or comedy series — a category for which "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" was also nominated.
Fallon conceded he had no expectation of winning and had no acceptance speech ready. But, feigning doubt, Kimmel leaped on him and, after a mock scuffle, produced Fallon's speech from his jacket. (In truth, Fallon would have no need for any such speech — Stewart would win for a ninth year.)
A new category, which combines the previously separate best miniseries and made-for-TV movie nominees, saw the PBS miniseries "Downton Abbey" take the prize. Maggie Smith won supporting actress honors for this "Masterpiece" presentation.
Kate Winslet captured the trophy for lead actress in the miniseries "Mildred Pierce" for her performance as an embattled mother, while her co-star Guy Pearce won for best supporting actor.
Barry Pepper, who played Robert F. Kennedy in the controversial miniseries "The Kennedys," won the best lead actor award.
In the reality-competition category, perennial winner "The Amazing Race" returned to triumph after losing last year to "Top Chef."
The ceremony, aired by Fox, opened with a pre-taped comedy sketch that generated controversy because Alec Baldwin's part was cut after he included a joke about the News Corp. phone hacking scandal. Fox is a unit of News Corp.
Baldwin tweeted that Fox killed the joke about the hacking scandal in Britain involving the now-closed News of the World tabloid. Fox said it believed the joke was inappropriate in making light of an issue being taken very seriously by the company.
Leonard Nimoy stepped in as "Mr. President of TV" and the bit was retaped. It featured Lynch celebrating television in a musical routine, singing about TV as "a vast wonderland, a kingdom of joy in a box" as she moved from one TV show (and its cast members) to another.
"Try doing that in triple Spanx," Lynch cracked when the dance number was over. With or without the Fox-targeted barb, it was a splashy way to start the show, and quickly certified that she was in control. In partnership with producer Burnett, she helped make the Emmycast award-worthy.
AP Entertainment writers Lynn Elber, Sandy Cohen, Anthony McCartney, David Bauder, Solvej Schou and Beth Harris contributed to this report.