Homeland struck a chord with Emmy Award voters, being crowned best drama series and earning Damian Lewis and Claire Danes lead acting awards.
On the comedy side, Modern Family and Jon Cryer of Two and a Half Men won again, while Jimmy Kimmel proved a game but uneven host.
Australians Nicole Kidman and Judy Davis missed out on Emmys.
Kidman lost out to Julianne Moore in the best actress in a miniseries or movie category.
The Australian was nominated for her turn in Hemingway & Gellhorn, about the tumultuous romance of Ernest Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn.
Moore's uncanny take on former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in the TV movie Game Change, about the 2008 presidential campaign, earned her best actress honours.
Davis, nominated in the best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie category, lost to Jessica Lange (American Horror Story).
She received the nod for her performance in Page Eight.
The drama Homeland stopped Mad Men in its tracks, denying the show a record-setting fifth trophy, keeping Bryan Cranston from his fourth consecutive best drama award for Breaking Bad and leaving Mad Men star Jon Hamm an also-ran once more.
"I'm one of those pesky Brits, I apologise," said Lewis, who plays an American in the espionage thriller.
"I don't really believe in judging art, but I thought I'd show up just in case."
Danes, eye-catching in a bright yellow dress that gracefully draped the pregnant actress, was effusive.
"My husband, my love, my life, my baby daddy, this doesn't mean anything without you," she said to her spouse, actor Hugh Dancy.
The acting trophies, along with a best writing award for the show, gave Homeland momentum as it headed toward the best drama award.
Aaron Paul won best supporting drama actor for Breaking Bad.
"Thank you so much for not killing me off," Paul said of his drug-dealing character's lucky survival.
"Thank you Hollywood for allowing me to be part of your group," he added, noting he'd moved from Idaho to pursue his dreams.
On the comedy side, Emmy voters decided that Two and a Half Men with Jon Cryer and without Charlie Sheen is really good, as Cryer claimed the best comedy actor trophy.
"Don't panic, people. Something has clearly gone terribly wrong. I'm stunned," said Cryer, who on the red carpet before the show has expressed confidence he wouldn't win. Among others, he beat out two-time winner Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory.
Ashton Kutcher, who joined the show after Sheen was fired, wasn't nominated.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was honoured as best actress in comedy for Veep.
Andy Griffith topped a segment honouring industry members who died during the previous year. Ron Howard, who played Griffith's son Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, said he belonged "in the pantheon".
"Dang if he didn't make it look powerful easy while he was going about it," Howard said.
Phyllis Diller, Davy Jones of The Monkees, Sheman Hemsley and Richard Dawson were among the others honoured in a montage.
Maggie Smith was honoured as best supporting drama actress for her tart-tongued dowager in Downton Abbey, unhurt by the program's move from the miniseries category.
Modern Family made it look easy as the comedy won the best directing trophy and Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen claimed supporting actor awards. There was at least a minor backlash online as some questioned whether the show had a deserving season.
Stonestreet was funny and touching as he accepted for his role as half of a devoted gay couple.
"I wouldn't be standing here without Jesse Tyler Ferguson, there is no Cam without Mitch," he said, saluting his co-star.
"We get the awesome opportunity to play these two characters on TV and show America and the world what a loving couple we can be just like everybody else."
The Amazing Race was honoured as best reality series for the ninth time in 10 nominations for the award. Tom Bergeron of Dancing With the Stars won as best host of a reality series.
Kevin Costner was named best actor for the history-based miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, while Tom Berenger was named best supporting actor for the project. Game Change was crowned best series.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart proved unstoppable, winning its 10th consecutive best variety show trophy. Stewart, discussing the lasting value of his show, apparently forgot that what flies on free-wheeling cable gets censored on network television.
"Years from now when the Earth is just a burning husk and aliens visit, they will find a box of these, and they will know, just how predictable these (several bleeps) can be," he said.
Standup comic Louis CK won the Emmy for best comedy writing for Louie and for the special Louis CK Live at the Beacon Theatre.
The show started with bathroom humour: A filmed bit with Kathy Bates, Zooey Deschanel and other nominated actresses prepping in the restroom, then discovering a weeping Jimmy Kimmel lamenting a Botox reaction he said would keep him off stage as host.
"You look beautiful," he was reassured. "You look like a Real Housewife."
List of winners at the 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences:
- Drama Series: Homeland
- Actress, Drama Series: Claire Danes, Homeland
- Actor, Drama Series: Damian Lewis, Homeland
- Supporting Actor, Drama Series: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
- Supporting Actress, Drama Series: Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
- Writing, Drama Series: Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, Gideon Raff, Homeland
- Directing, Drama Series: Tim Van Patten, Boardwalk Empire
- Comedy Series: Modern Family
- Actor, Comedy Series: Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
- Actress, Comedy Series: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
- Supporting Actress, Comedy Series: Julie Bowen, Modern Family
- Supporting Actor, Comedy Series: Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family
- Writing, Comedy Series: Louis CK, Louie
- Directing, Comedy Series: Steven Levitan, Modern Family
- Miniseries or Movie: Game Change
- Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Julianne Moore, Game Change
- Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys
- Supporting Actress, Miniseries or Movie: Jessica Lange, American Horror Story
- Supporting Actor, Miniseries or Movie: Tom Berenger, Hatfields & McCoys
- Directing, Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special: Jay Roach, Game Change
- Writing, Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special: Danny Strong, Game Change
- Reality-Competition Program: The Amazing Race
- Host, Reality-Competition Program: Tom Bergeron, Dancing With the Stars
- Variety, Music or Comedy Series: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
- Writing for a Variety Special: Louis CK, Louis CK Live at the Beacon Theatre
- Directing, Variety, Music or Comedy Special: Glenn Weiss, 65th Annual Tony Awards