Amid a ceremony intent on casting back nostalgically -- with salutes to classic programs such as "Laugh-In," "M*A*S*H" and "Dragnet" -- were constant reminders of the growing prestige of basic cable networks, once the purveyors of reruns.
A quirky drama about a man dying of cancer who makes and sells meth so he won't leave his family destitute, the series ran only seven episodes last season, cut short because of the writers strike.
"Oh, my goodness, oh, man. I'm so proud of this show," said a clearly shocked Cranston as he held his statuette.
The night belonged to HBO, which continued its dominance by scoring 26 awards, including 13 for its meticulous historical drama, "John Adams," a record for a miniseries.
"I'm living proof to kids at home watching that anybody can play the president," Paul Giamatti joked in accepting the award for portraying the second U.S. president.
Laura Linney won for her role as Abigail Adams, the stalwart wife, and Tom Wilkinson won for supporting actor as Ben Franklin. Rounding out the winners was Kirk Ellis, who won for writing the star-studded miniseries, which was produced by Tom Hanks.
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Comedy remained largely the domain of the broadcast networks, however. NBC's "30 Rock" nabbed seven awards, the second-highest tally of any program, with stars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin taking home Emmys.
Overall, cable channels won 59 Emmys while the broadcast networks took 38. PBS scored 10.
This year's crop of winners spotlighted the growing gap between critically honored television and series most popular with the viewers. While "The Amazing Race" scored another win for reality series, top 10 shows such as "CSI," "American Idol" and "Grey's Anatomy" were largely overlooked.
Producers of this year's ceremony sought to spotlight much-watched reality shows by inviting hosts of nominated programs to emcee Sunday's telecast.
Ryan Seacrest from Fox's "American Idol," Tom Bergeron from ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," Heidi Klum of Bravo's "Project Runway," Howie Mandel of NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and Jeff Probst of CBS' "Survivor" -- all dressed alike in black suits -- opened the show with a rambling bit about how they had nothing to say.
But their stilted and unfocused banter appeared to fall flat.
"We knew all along it was gonna be tough," said Probst afterward. "Having five people agree on anything is difficult. We hadn't done it before, except for Ryan. Every time we had one idea, two people didn't like it ..... We couldn't agree. That's why we did nothing." Probst won the first Emmy given out in a new category, host for a reality competition program.
"Thank you for letting reality in," he said to members of the television academy.
But the focus of the night was cable stars such as Close, who saluted fellow nominees Sally Field, Mariska Hargitay, Holly Hunter and Kyra Sedgwick in her acceptance speech.
"I think we're proving that complicated, powerful, mature women are sexy and high entertainment and can carry a show," she said. "I call us the sisterhood of the TV drama divas."
The big winner was expected to be "Mad Men." The low-rated, sophisticated drama went into the awards season with 16 nominations and ended up with six wins.
Though its breakout star, Jon Hamm, was passed over for best actor, the show did pick up an Emmy in writing for its creator, Matthew Weiner, who said, "I guess I'm going to have to find something new to complain about."
The award for made-for-television movie went to "Recount," HBO's drama about the 2000 presidential election. The movie also won best director for Jay Roach, who warned viewers that "it's going to get close again, this election," in one of the many political references of the night.
Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" won for variety, musical or comedy series. "I really look forward to the next administration, whoever it is," Stewart said when accepting the award.