Before those final few awards, during which "24's" Sutherland won for best actor in a drama for the first time, the Emmys had favored the tried and true, despite some controversial rule changes instituted this year that were designed to shake up the awards.
The shows that have been breathing new life into primetime television in recent years — such as "American Idol," "House" and "Grey's Anatomy," despite its 11 nominations — also were overlooked. And several of last year's most honored shows, such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," received few nominations and won no major awards.
At the same time, many of the honors went to shows that won't be returning, including "Will & Grace" and "Huff."
Until the final moments of the show, if you had won before, the chances were you won again. Megan Mullally of NBC's "Will & Grace" won her second Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy. Alan Alda, a multiple Emmy winner for "MASH," won for best supporting actor in a drama for "The West Wing" on NBC. Tony Shalhoub won his third Emmy for best actor in a comedy for "Monk" on USA.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a best supporting actress Emmy winner from "Seinfeld," won for best actress in a comedy for CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine." "Curse this, baby!" she said of the supposed jinx that has plagued "Seinfeld" alums.
And though critics thought CBS' "The Amazing Race" had an off year, because of an unpopular family edition and time-slot switches, it trounced the juggernaut of "American Idol" for the fourth straight time for outstanding reality series.
Host Conan O'Brien and the show's writers brought their quirky sense of silliness to the proceedings, with bits that hit (Bob Newhart in a cylinder that O'Brien threatened would run out of air if the show ran past its allotted time), and missed (sometimes stilted dialogue between presenters). He kept the tone light, with only slight references to the controversy surrounding the rule changes.
The new rules relied on panels of Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members to determine the final nominations after a larger vote had whittled down the field in the major categories. The hope was that the process would result in recognition for niche shows that had been overlooked in previous years. But some panel members complained that the new system was confusing: they weren't allowed to directly compare shows and didn't understand the scoring.
The film clip that started the show had O'Brien being forced to make his way through several different TV series on his way to the Emmys and had the feel of a Billy Crystal Oscar opening. But it was clouded by a plane-crash scene parodying "Lost," which started the show on a jarring note considering the crash hours earlier in Kentucky that had left 49 dead. Within moments, criticism of the crash imagery raced through the Internet faster than any other Emmy news.
Overall, HBO was the big winner with a total of 26 Emmys. Among the broadcast networks, NBC led with 14; ABC had 11; Fox, 10; CBS, 9; and PBS, 8.
In winning for best comedy, NBC's "The Office" extends its status as a low-key winner. It is far below the popularity levels of "Two and a Half Men," which was also nominated for best comedy. Like the canceled "Arrested Development," which won six Emmys but was never able to attract a large audience, "The Office" is a critical favorite that has yet to attain wide popularity.
Both "24" and "The Office" have been hailed for their innovative upheavals of the traditional sitcom and episodic drama. But their victory did not demonstrate a wave of fresh vision or brave new directions that the redesigned nomination process was meant to achieve.
Although Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" this year may have received most of the headlines, it was unable to unseat its parent show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," which took home its fourth consecutive Emmy for both best variety, music and comedy series, as well as the trophy for best writing. Even Stewart, in an apparent reference to Colbert's show, quipped in his acceptance speech that he thought the academy had "made a mistake."
In fact, one of the few surprises came courtesy of a crooner who is often the butt of jokes. Musician Barry Manilow triumphed over his TV competition Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman and Hugh Jackman in winning the award for individual performance in a variety or music program with his PBS special, "Barry Manilow: Music and Passion."
HBO continued its traditional dominance in the movie categories. "Elizabeth I" was the night's top winner with nine Emmys, including best miniseries and Helen Mirren as best actress. "The Girl in the Cafe" won three Emmys, including best made-for-TV movie.
Showtime scored one of the night's upsets when Blythe Danner won her second consecutive Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama for "Huff," which the pay cable network canceled in its second season. Danner, who took a few good-natured pokes at the cancellation, beat out popular favorites such as Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson of "Grey's Anatomy" and Jean Smart of "24."
HBO, which had the most nominations of any network, finally nabbed some awards gold for "Entourage," which some insiders felt was overlooked in the major comedy categories. Jeremy Piven, who plays the foul-mouthed Hollywood agent Ari Gold, won for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy.
Heartfelt, sometimes tearful, emotion took center stage at various points during the evening. A tribute to the late TV mogul Aaron Spelling, who died in June, included remembrances by three stars from his shows — Joan Collins ("Dynasty"), Stephen Collins ("7th Heaven") and Heather Locklear ("Melrose Place").
But the true surprise came when the three original "Charlie's Angels" — Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith — strode on stage. The three had not appeared together on television since Fawcett departed the series following the first season in 1977. Fawcett teared up while holding her hands in a prayerful gesture, looked upward and said, "Thank you, Aaron."
Another poignant moment came during a tribute to Dick Clark, who suffered a stroke in 2004. The segment included numerous clips of the legendary producer and host introducing future music superstars such as Madonna, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson on "American Bandstand."
Simon Cowell of "American Idol" then introduced Clark, who was sitting behind a podium, making his first public appearance since last year's "New Year's Rockin' Eve." Always the producer, Clark tried to cut short the standing ovation, pointing to his watch and warning that the show might run long. Even with his slurred speech, he eloquently expressed his gratitude that his dream of being in show business had come true.
Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Lynn Smith and Melissa Pamer contributed to this report.