The 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards started out incredibly predictable, and they ended virtually the same way. But sandwiched in between those two familiar slices of white bread was an incredible, unpredictable filling, featuring a number of delightfully shocking winners like Margo Martindale, Peter Dinklage and, in a stunning but welcome farewell tribute, “Friday Night Lights.”

Things didn’t start off in exciting fashion when “Modern Family” - a show adored by the Emmy’s comedy branch for the way it melds traditional multi-camera sitcom-style humor with a 21st century aesthetic - swept the first four awards of the night. The show only failed to go five in a row because the fifth award was for comedy lead actor, and all of the show’s actors submitted themselves in the supporting categories. (Host Jane Lynch followed the 4-4 opening by announcing, “Welcome to the ‘Modern Family’ awards!”)

Voters not only loved the show in general but the Dunphy family in particular. Julie Bowen beat out co-star Sofia Vergara (who had a much, much funnier year) for comedy supporting actress - not to mention reigning winner Lynch and perpetual Emmy winner Betty White - and joked that she didn’t know what she would complain about to her therapist next week. Ty Burrell followed, and gave a splendid speech - the right mix of poignant and funny - as he tried to imagine how his late father, who never got to see him act, would feel about a career that left him so fulfilled but also required him to wear makeup.

The “Modern Family” wins (including writing and directing) were followed by an award that seemed like a surprise but probably shouldn’t have been, as “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons repeated for comedy lead actor, depriving outgoing “The Office” star Steve Carell of his final chance to win an Emmy for playing Michael Scott. Carell’s submitted episode (“Goodbye Michael”) was a great emotional and comic showcase, but also one that played very strongly off of seven seasons of viewer knowledge of the character, whereas Parsons’ submission required no knowledge save that Parsons is very good at verbal and physical comedy. The easiest way to win an Emmy is to have already won one, so Parsons had a leg up on Carell.

As the nominees for comedy lead actress were announced, nominee Amy Poehler raced to the stage, to the surprise of presenters Sofia Vergara and Rob Lowe, and the delight of the audience (in the theater and at home). She was quickly followed by the other nominees in a marvelous parody of various awards ceremonies - the idea was Poehler’s, which she hatched over dinner with fellow nominee Martha Plimpton last week - and even ended with the winner getting a tiara and bouquet of roses. Unfortunately, that winner wasn’t Poehler (the funniest performer in the category), but Melissa McCarthy from “Mike & Molly.” (I could deal with Poehler losing to either of the Showtime actresses, who get to show much more dramatic range than her, or to Tina Fey, who was also hilarious in her own submission, but no way should Poehler’s performance in the “Flu Season” episode of “Parks and Recreation” have lost to anyone else.)

The night then shifted back into predictability for the various reality and variety awards. “The Amazing Race,” which lost the reality competition series Emmy for the first time ever last year, reclaimed its title, and “The Daily Show” won the comedy/variety/music series Emmy for the ninth year in a row. (Presenter Scott Caan didn’t even try to pretend another show had a chance.)

After that, though, things got incredibly - and often wonderfully - strange.

The drama categories were expected to be a battle between hotshot HBO rookie “Boardwalk Empire” and the fourth season of “Mad Men,” powered by the powerfully Emmy-baiting episode “The Suitcase.” Instead, “Boardwalk” won its expected award for Martin Scorsese’s direction of the pilot and nothing else (though it cleaned up in the technical categories presented last week), “Mad Men” was shut out entirely from this middle portion of the telecast - the show has still never won an Emmy for acting - and the winners were...

… brilliant.

Matthew Weiner’s script for “The Suitcase” may have taught us what the money was for, but Jason Katims’ script for the “Friday Night Lights” series finale taught us one last time what all our tears over that great, great series were for, and it was a win that even Katims didn’t seem to be expecting. (“The Suitcase” is one of the all-time great hours of TV drama, but Weiner also has a shelf-ful of Emmys, and in this case I was so damn happy to see Katims get a kind of career achievement award for the terminally underrated “FNL.”)

No word could better describe Margo Martindale’s supporting actress win for her mesmerizing, heartbreaking turn as hillbilly crime lord Mags Bennet than the title of the show she won it for: “Justified.” The veteran character actress alternated laughter and tears as she said, “Sometimes, things just take time, but with time comes appreciation,” and expressed gratitude for being able to act with “the kick-assest cast on television.” 

Though HBO’s “Game of Thrones” wouldn’t get any other awards on the night, Peter Dinklage’s supporting actor win for his charismatic, hilarious, touching work as clever imp Tyrion Lannister was extremely deserving.

Julianna Margulies had been expected to win the drama lead actress award last year, and instead got it for another strong season of work on “The Good Wife.” (I’d have given it to either Elisabeth Moss or Connie Britton, but Margulies is terrific in her own right.)



Then came the night’s most uncertain award: drama lead actor. Bryan Cranston had won it each of the past three years, and only couldn’t win this time because “Breaking Bad” was ineligible after taking more than a year off between seasons. So on one hand you had Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall and Hugh Laurie who’d been beaten year after year by Cranston. On the other you had first-time nominees Steve Buscemi and Timothy Olyphant possibly poised to swoop in and deprive those guys yet again. And out of nowhere came “Friday Night Lights” leading man Kyle Chandler, whose work episode after episode, season after season, established Coach Eric Taylor as the best on-screen dad since Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, to win the thing. Chandler was so unprepared for the win that he didn’t write a speech (and, as a result, forgot to thank co-star Connie Britton until after his microphone was turned off).

For a show that had begun in such uninspiring fashion - not only with all the “Modern Family”/”Daily Show” dominance, but with a long, strange production number in which Lynch danced and sang her way across most of the shows in primetime (her visit to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices was a lone highlight, mainly for Hamm’s disgust as Don Draper sent her on her way) - this unbridled lunacy, usually in service of people who had long deserved an Emmy, if not always this particular Emmy, was a refreshing change from business as usual.

After that, PBS’ “Downton Abbey” largely crushed HBO’s heavily-favored “Mildred Pearce” in the movies/minis categories (though Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce prevented HBO from being shut out in the Emmy portion it usually dominates), including a win for outstanding miniseries or movie.

That left the biggest awards of the night: for outstanding drama and comedy series. “Mad Men” had been shut out to that point, “Boardwalk Empire” had the most Emmys thanks to the technical awards, and “Friday Night Lights” had won two significant trophies during the primetime show. It seemed like the night was ripe for yet another upset, but “Mad Men” restored order by winning the category for the fourth straight year. (And though it’s boring to say that, “Mad Men” still had the strongest season of the nominated dramas.)

But where Weiner seemed honest when he admitted he didn’t expect to win that award, given how the rest of the night had gone, nobody at “Modern Family” had to act the least bit surprised when they made it to the stage for their second straight Emmy coronation for outstanding comedy series. (Nevermind that “Parks and Recreation” clearly had the best season of any nominee; the Academy’s love of “Modern Family” couldn’t have been more clear throughout the night.)

All in all, it was about the best you could hope for out of the Emmys: many deserving winners, some of them pleasantly surprising and some predictable to the point of sleepiness, and only a few completely egregious choices. It’s an awards show. Strange things happen. But most of the strangeness this year was entirely to the good.

So “Parks and Recreation” and Jon Hamm still don’t have Emmys, but “Friday Night Lights” has two. I can live with that, especially since the Emmys don’t change what I know thrilled me when I watched it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com