LOS ANGELES — “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 captured her second trophy for the terrorism drama, paid tribute to one of the series’ writers, Henry Bromell, who died last 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.
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.”
“This is so much good fortune it’s almost too much to bear,” said Louis-Dreyfus. “I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to make people laugh. It’s a joyful way to make a living.”
Parsons added to the awards he won in 2011 and 2010 for the role of a science nerd.
“My heart, oh my heart. I want you to know I’m very aware of how exceedingly fortunate I am,” he said.
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.”
“Merritt Wever, best speech ever,” host Neil Patrick Harris said. Backstage, she offered an explanation: “I’m sorry I didn’t thank anyone. I was going to cry.”
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 his 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.
Derek Hough of “Dancing with the Stars” won the trophy for best choreography, which offered an opportunity to include an upbeat dance number late in the show.
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.”
Also honored was Cory Monteith, the “Glee” star who died at age 31 in July of a drug and alcohol overdose.
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.”