I pick on the Emmy voters a lot - and rightly so - for their complacency. The easiest way to win an Emmy most years is to have already won an Emmy, and it feels like a fluke if the best show or performer or writer actually wins.

So fair is fair: the 2010 Emmys were the most refreshing in years, filled with first-time and/or surprise winners, and where the handful of same ol', same ol' victors were fairly unimpeachable.

It's easy to say that we were due for a lot of fresh blood, particularly on the comedy side, where the "Glee" and "Modern Family" were the season's two biggest success stories, but the Emmy doesn't usually go to the hot new series or breakout performance. (A lot of the time, we have to wait for the sophomore year, and in the meantime that year's hot freshman gets snubbed.) It would not have been shocking at all to see "30 Rock," Alec Baldwin, Jon Cryer, et al. as the big winners.

But, no, the Emmy voters got it mostly right. Given three "Modern Family" co-stars to choose from in the comedy supporting actor category, they didn't split their votes too much, and they chose the funniest performance in the category: Eric Stonestreet as the exuberant Cam (and, in his submitted episode, as the bad-ass clown Fizbo). They honored Jane Lynch for providing virtually all of the laughs on the only occasionally comic "Glee," and if they were a year or two late on noticing how terrific Jim Parsons is on "The Big Bang Theory," better late than more Tony Shalhoub.

The one unsurprising comedy acting win went to Edie Falco from Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" - she did, after all, win three Emmys on "The Sopranos," and is giving a strong, very un-Carmela performance on her new show - who was herself understandably surprised to be up there, given that her show has no business being classified as a comedy.

"Oh, this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever ever happened," she said, telling it like it is. "I'm not funny!"

And while "Modern Family" wouldn't be my pick as the best comedy of the season, it was awfully good and "Parks and Recreation," "Community" and "Party Down" weren't nominated, and it was a much more deserving winner than a "30 Rock" four-peat would have been.

The surprises kept coming on the drama side - some pleasant, some just surprising. As I've said a bunch of times lately, Aaron Paul from "Breaking Bad" gave one of the two best dramatic performances on television last year (Katey Sagal gave the other on "Sons of Anarchy," and wasn't even nominated, but that's a screed for a different day), and he beat out a trio of past Emmy winners (and largely deserving present-day nominees) in Michael Emerson, Terry O'Quinn and Andre Braugher.

On "The Good Wife," Archie Panjabi gave the kind of performance that merited awards consideration but that seemed a little too nuanced to get her the win when voters are making their choices based on a single episode. Instead, she got to walk off the stage with the statuette.


Panjabi's co-star Julianna Margulies, meanwhile, was considered by many (yours truly included) the lock of the night after sweeping the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and even the TCA Awards, but she lost to Kyra Sedgwick, who once upon a time seemed like she was surely going to win an Emmy or three for "The Closer" but then became an afterthought after losing to Mariska Hargitay, Sally Field and Glenn Close (twice).

The one repeat winner in an acting series category was Bryan Cranston from "Breaking Bad," taking home his third Emmy in a row. I'm conflicted on this. On the one hand, Cranston is fantastic, and a big part of why "Breaking Bad" became the best drama on television this season (albeit not in the minds of Emmy voters). On the other, this was a category where all six nominees were incredibly deserving, and where in several cases the competition lost either their last shot (Matthew Fox) or perhaps best shot (Hugh Laurie for the "Broken" episode of "House") at winning. I like it when excellence is recognized, but I also like for wealth to be shared.

"Breaking Bad" couldn't get over the hump and beat AMC sibling "Mad Men" for the outstanding drama series, and with "Breaking Bad" ineligible for next year's Emmys (season four won't debut until summer 2011, after the eligibility period for the '11 awards) it seems like the only thing that's going to derail "Mad Men" anytime soon will be if HBO gets back in the game with "Boardwalk Empire" or "Luck."

The Emmys are never going to be perfect, and not only because everyone's barometer of what the best shows on television are is going to be a bit different. (I have some friends who are outraged that "Lost" didn't get a going-away win for Outstanding Drama Series, for instance, even though it would have been at best third on my list among that category's nominees after the two AMC shows.)

But as Emmys go, this was about as good and surprising as we're going to get. If you really want a sense of how wide-open and topsy-turvy this year's ceremony was, look no further than the reality competition show category, which before tonight had been won for the first seven years of its existence by "The Amazing Race." This year, "Top Chef" took it, and Bertram Van Munster did not get the eight-peat.

Some other Emmy thoughts:

  • Jimmy Fallon was a mixed bag as host. His filmed opening number - performing "Born to Run" with half the cast of "Glee," plus Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Jorge Garcia, Nina Dobrev, Joel McHale and others - was a lot of fun (though it weirdly played as a prolonged "Glee" promo on a night when FOX wasn't telecasting the awards), but his insistence on sticking to his Twitter schtick after it was clear it was dying in the room was unfortunate. The funniest moments of the show came not from Fallon, but from the filmed "Modern Family" sketch that inserted George Clooney into all three families, and from Ricky Gervais, who turned the name of Olympics director Bucky Gunts into a running gag. (Fienberg thought more highly of Fallon than I did, putting him first in his rundown of Emmy winners & losers.)
  • Very odd pacing of the show, with the producers doing virtually all the comedy categories, then virtually the ones for drama, within the first hour-plus of a three-hour show, thus leaving a prolonged period devoted to variety/talk shows and movies and miniseries. I guess the idea on the latter was to save big movie stars Al Pacino (who won for "You Don't Know Jack") and Tom Hanks (who won for "The Pacific") for the final hour. But given how marginalized the movies & minis genre has become - dominated by wonderful but mostly little-seen HBO projects - it felt bizarre to have so much of the climax of the night be devoted to them, and then to have the "Mad Men" and "Modern Family" series wins be rushed through as an afterthought at the end.
  • Speaking of HBO movies, I was happy to see so many awards bestowed on "Temple Grandin," and to see Temple Grandin herself - an animal behavior expert and autism advocate - get repeated curtain calls from the audience, and then on stage to wrap producer Emily Gerson Saines in an emotional hug when the film won for best movie. If you saw "Temple Grandin" or know anything about her life, you know what a big deal that hug was.
  • This was the final year of the broadcast network contract to carry the Emmys, and there had been rumblings that if all the big awards again went to cable shows (or network shows with cable-level ratings like "30 Rock"), the contract might not be renewed, since ABC, NBC, et al didn't want to pay to air a three-hour ad for HBO every year. But enough popular network shows won in big categories (particularly on the comedy side) that I imagine the arrangement will continue.
  • NBC's biggest PR nightmare was averted when "The Daily Show" won its seventh Emmy for Outstanding Comedy/Variety Series, beating out "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien."
  • I recognize that I'm biased because he was my friend, and also that there's no way to possibly include everyone in the In Memoriam segment, but given that there were a bunch of other producers in there, how did David Mills not make the cut? He won two Emmys (for "The Corner"), was nominated for three others and was a key writer/producer on some of the greatest dramas of the modern era, whether they were Emmy-approved ("NYPD Blue," "ER") or not ("Homicide," "The Wire"). Fortunately, the montage HBO put together to air after the "Treme" finale is on YouTube, but still - insert Clay Davis catchphrase here. (Also, his former colleague Susie Putnam was inspired by the In Memoriam snub to write this lovely tribute.)

What did everybody else think? Given the nominees we had to work with, how satisfied were you with the results?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com