The sitcom about a deliciously dysfunctional family won its second consecutive trophy for outstanding comedy series and four other awards, including honors for onscreen husband and wife Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen. Meanwhile, AMC's stylish period drama about Madison Avenue advertising executives earned its fourth consecutive Emmy for outstanding drama series. The series had been shut out most of the evening but still managed to take the top prize.
HBO headed into the Emmys with 104 nominations. Though it won 15 trophies last week at the Creative Arts Emmys, it managed to pick up only four additional statuettes Sunday night. The showing was shocking, given the pay channel's usual domination of the prime-time awards.
"Mildred Pierce" managed to win two honors -- best actress in a miniseries or movie for Kate Winslet and a supporting actor trophy for Guy Pearce. ("I didn't think we were going to win anything," Winslet said when she picked up her award.)
Despite all its firepower, the well-appointed miniseries was upstaged by the PBS miniseries "Downton Abbey," which earned four awards, including outstanding miniseries or movie.
The show's creator, Julian Fellowes, admitted as much as he accepted the top prize. "This is really a David and Goliath story," he said. "It seems perfectly extraordinary that we won."
Fellowes also won for writing and Brian Percival for direction for a TV miniseries, movie or dramatic special. Maggie Smith won for supporting actress for the miniseries. "Downton Abbey" had been facing "Mildred Pierce" in all four catgories.
Other wins were clearly "Justified."
Margo Martindale -- generally cast as a kind and gentle woman -- picked up her first Emmy, for supporting actress in a drama series for playing against type. She embodied the role of a cutthroat matriarch of a backwoods, nothing-but-trouble family on FX's "Justified," a part that was universally acclaimed.
Martindale, 60, was visibly thrilled and moved by the win after years as a character actress. "Sometimes things just take time," she joked.
The writing award for a drama series went to Jason Katims for the recently departed sports drama "Friday Night Lights," which was much loved but never built a big audience during its five-year run. The drama about a high school football coach in Texas also netted Kyle Chandler the trophy for lead actor in a drama series.
In other trophies, lead actress in a drama series went to Julianna Margulies for CBS' "The Good Wife," and supporting actor in a drama series went to Peter Dinklage for HBO's "Game of Thrones." Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese picked up his first Emmy for directing the pilot episode of HBO's period gangster series "Boardwalk Empire." And Barry Pepper won lead actor in a TV miniseries or movie for his role as Robert F. Kennedy in the Reelz Channel's "The Kennedys."
A big surprise of the evening? Charlie Sheen came on stage and didn't do anything outrageous.
In fact, he wished the best to his old series, "Two and Half Men," saying "From the bottom of my heart, I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season." He was there to present the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series, a category in which he had been nominated before for his former series. The honor went to Jim Parsons for his second consecutive Emmy as the brilliant geek on CBS' "The Big Bang Theory."
In other honors, CBS' "Amazing Race" returned to the winner's circle, picking up the Emmy for reality-competition series. Last year, its reign ended when Bravo's "Top Chef" took the honor. Until then, it had won seven years in a row -- every year since the category was created.
An even more impressive track record is being carved by Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." For the ninth year in a row, it won for variety, music or comedy series. "We're acutely aware of how fortunate we are to win this once," much less again and again, Stewart said. The show also won for variety, music or comedy series writing.
Don Roy King from "Saturday Night Live" scored his second straight win for directing of a variety, music or comedy series.
Although many of the comedy bits built into the awards ceremony fell flat, some of the biggest laughs of the night came during the presentation for lead actress in a comedy series.
The honor, however, went to Melissa McCarthy for CBS' "Mike & Molly." Not only was she given the award, they also put a crown on her head and a bouquet of roses in her arms. "Holy smokes!" she exclaimed. "It's my first and best pageant ever."
But from the outset of the evening, it was "Modern Family"'s night at the Nokia Theatre.
The first four trophies of the evening went to the comedy series, beginning with Bowen, who won supporting actress in a comedy series.
"Oh, my God, are you KIDDING me?" said Bowen, wearing a plunging green sequined gown, holding aloft her first Emmy trophy. "I don't know what I am going to talk about in therapy next week, I won something!"
It was also the first win for Burrell, who was by contrast calm and reflective as he noted that his father had passed away before he ever saw his son perform. "I wonder what he'd think of this," Burrell said, musing that his father would be surprised that he goes to work in full makeup every day at work.
Another first-time winner was Michael Spiller, who won for directing the comedy series. And Steve Levitan and Jeffrey Richman won for comedy writing for a much-talked-about episode in which the kids caught their parents in bed together getting busy.
It was enough to make host Jane Lynch quip "Welcome back to the 'Modern Family' awards" after a commercial break.