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Surprises? Justice? Entertainment? Could This Really Be the Emmys?

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Aaron Paul claims a Best Supporting Drama Actor Emmy for his work on Breaking Bad. / NBC

The 2010 Emmy awards broadcast was a night of refreshing twists and unexpected surprises, the biggest of which, perhaps, was the 2010 Emmy awards broadcast. Namely, it was a pretty entertaining night of TV, kicked off by an actually amusing musical number (not even involving Neil Patrick Harris, at that!) featuring the cast of Glee, and leavened throughout by the guitar-comedy stylings of Jimmy Fallon. (Which were welcome, if not surprising, if you remember his stints as an MTV awards host beginning about a decade ago.)

And the awards themselves: also actually refreshing and surprising! (And, at least in most cases, more or less well-deserved.) There were very few multiple-repeat winners in a night of upsets and new faces; and most of the old faces who returned (say, Bryan Cranston and the series Mad Men for respective three-peats) were worthy.

Who took the Emmy awards away and replaced them with this? I have no idea, but we’ll keep it.

The night began with the comedy categories, which were almost bound to produce new winners, as the chief competitors were freshmen Glee and Modern Family. Modern Family was the biggest winner (including a best-comedy win), but Glee—which saw an unsurprising win for actress Jane Lynch—showed in the hilarious opening number and numerous shout-outs how deeply it has penetrated the culture and the aesthetic of TV comedy. There is nothing, it seems, that can’t be improved with a musical act, especially if it involves Betty White coaching Jon Hamm to shake his booty. And those two comedies didn’t monopolize the spotlight: The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons won a fitting (if maybe a year late) comedy-actor award over repeat-accepters like Tony Shalhoub and Alec Baldwin.

A final comedy newcomer, if not exactly a surprise (and not exactly an Emmy newcomer): Edie Falco, for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. “I’m not funny!” she protested, and my Twitter feed was full of grumbling that she shouldn’t have won, because the show is as much or more drama than comedy. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. The first is my belief that the best comedies don’t have to be the shows with the most laughs; they’re the shows that use comedy (and often also drama) to tell the best stories. Nurse Jackie may not neatly fall into comedy or drama completely, but it has to go in one or the other, and I don’t understand why TV can’t be as accepting of the gray areas between comedy and drama as film, where dark comedy and other hybrids are common (if not commercially huge). Second, whatever you think of Nurse Jackie, the award here was for the best nominated performance, and I think Falco earned that over the two eligible seasons; to deny it because she didn’t have the most laff-a-minute lines diminishes her work, and that of the other nominated actresses. (That said? I would not have minded seeing Amy Poehler win.)

But the Emmys’ bout of inertia-breaking didn’t end with the comedies. Yes, Bryan Cranston kept his lock on the lead drama actor category (and I can’t really deny it to him), but his costar Aaron Paul justly and surprisingly picked up the supporting category as well. The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi won a stunner in supporting actress (for doing great work in what could be a limited role, though, for instance, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks was more deserving), as did Kyra Sedgwick in lead actress (again, over the sadly overlooked Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights).

But even in the categories I thought Emmy got wrong, it at least showed a willingness to break out of its rut. How much so? The Amazing Race, which I am pretty sure has been winning Competitive Reality Show since well before the actual invention of television, was compelled to pack its knives and go by Top Chef. (More on Time.com: See the top 10 Emmy snubs)

[Update: One notable non-winner in the drama category, by the way, was Lost, which got shut out in its major acting, writing, directing and series nominations. I didn't think the final season was last season's best dramatic TV, unfortunately, but I half-expected Emmy to give the show a gold watch anyway, so count that as half a surprise.]

As for movies and miniseries: all right, no real shockers there, as HBO won pretty much everything of consequence, between Temple Grandin and The Pacific. But as it’s practically the only channel (with the occasional exception of PBS and the odd cable effort) seriously in those categories, I can’t complain.

Nor could I complain, much, about the ceremonies themselves, which were brisk, mostly lacking self-seriousness and entertaining. (One well-advised repeat performance: the return of John Hodgman as announcer.) The welcoming, eager-to-please Fallon was a success, as were guests like Ricky Gervais, who killed (maybe more so than at the Golden Globes) with his celeb-skewering patter. (On Mel Gibson: “He’s been through a lot. [Pause.] Not as much as the Jews.”)

It was a fine two hours of television. Granted, it was spread over three hours of television, but the lull leading into the final best-series announcements was a great opportunity to watch Mad Men do what earned it all those Emmys. (By the way, last night’s Mad Men—mild spoiler alert—had an apt storyline involving an awards ceremony of its own; my review will be delayed this morning as I catch up on it.)

As for the repeat winners, one of them, The Daily Show for best comedy/variety program, while probably the best choice, robbed us of the night’s best chance for comedy drama, namely, what would have happened had Conan O’Brien won, on NBC’s air, for his aborted season of The Tonight Show. Instead, this was one rare time a broadcast network was glad to lose again to cable—and Coco lost a valuable branding moment leading into his November relaunch on TBS.

But early in the program, Fallon got off the first of several pointed references, noting that NBC had asked him to come from Late Night to L.A. to host a different show: “What could possibly go wrong?” he asked, as the camera cut to the bearded Conan. Then: “Too soon?” No, Jimmy, it was just in time.

More on Time.com:

See a package on the top 10 things we miss about the Mad Men era

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