Neil Patrick Harris

"This just in: No one in America is winning their Emmy office pool," quipped Neil Patrick Harris toward the end of Sunday's Emmy show, not long after The Colbert Report broke The Daily Show's 10-year winning streak as best variety series, The Voice took the reality-competition prize from The Amazing Race and The Newsroom's Jeff Daniels upset a crowded field of best-actor nominees, remarking, "Well, crap!" while chewing gum.

"Surprises galore," Harris declared, which made for an interesting and largely unpredictable night — if only the show itself didn't keep getting in the way, rudely playing off even major winners so they could get to the next elaborately produced piece. Such as the filmed sketch featuring Harris's How I Met Your Mother co-workers staging an intervention for his "Excessive Hosting Disorder," which felt merely excessive.

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With an inexhaustible entertainer like Harris at center stage, the Emmys at times felt like the Tonys (including a diverting but derivative "Number in the Middle of the Show" song and dance, reminiscent of his Emmy-winning gig as Tony host) except for when it was trying to be like the Grammys — and what exactly did Elton John's new ballad have to do with Liberace's legacy except that they're both gay and favor sequins? And while Carrie Underwood did at least sing a Beatles song to mark the 50th anniversary of the band's legendary Ed Sullivan Show breakthrough, her dirge-like "Yesterday" cover was from the wrong period, and linking that event to the anniversary of JFK's assassination was peculiar and forced.

The show whipsawed between being a musical extravaganza and a wake, with heartfelt and often moving testimonials to several of the year's fallen stars presented throughout the night, casting a respectful but mournful pall over the proceedings and prompting Modern Family creator Steven Levitan to call it "the saddest Emmys of all time." (Hopefully the audience in the Nokia Theater was spared eavesdropping on Shemar Moore's vapid backstage chatter, because that was the saddest spectacle of all.)

The show got off to a strong start with Harris binge-watching TV surrounded by video towers of babble, then fending off a succession of past Emmy hosts on stage, with Kevin Spacey (in his House of Cards guise) revealing from his seat that the assault was his idea: "Look at that parade of blabbering buffoons. They couldn't host a child's birthday party." After Tina Fey and Amy Poehler taunted the host from the front row to "work that twerk," they presented the first award (supporting comedy actress) to Nurse Jackie's shocked Merritt Wever, whose disarmingly quick acceptance — "Gotta go, bye" — brought down the house and led Harris to proclaim the moment the "best speech ever."

Maybe the producers felt that all speeches should be that short, because nearly everyone else was rushed off the stage, including first-time winners Anna Gunn (for Breaking Bad), Bobby Cannavale (for Boardwalk Empire) and Tony Hale (Veep), who hilariously returned to the stage shortly thereafter as repeat winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus's shadow, channeling the obsequious toady he plays so memorably on the HBO comedy.

No single series enjoyed a sweep, so it was unclear until the very end if Modern Family (which for the first time won no acting awards) would claim its fourth consecutive Best Comedy award — it did — and because former champs Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were passed over this year, and the dramatic writing and directing awards went to Homeland (the late Henry Bromell) and House of Cards (David Fincher), the highly anticipated ascension of Breaking Bad to Best Drama, one week before its series finale, was hardly a foregone conclusion.

If you were following the actual awards, it was a fairly suspenseful and mostly satisfying event. But doing so was easier said than done on such an overstuffed and underwhelming production.

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