Bryan Cranston by Mathew Imaging/
The 60th annual Emmy Awards set out to honor TV history and ended up making a little of its own. As expected, AMC's stylishly adult 60s-era drama Mad Men took home the best drama prize, the first ever for a basic cable series. The upstart channel delivered a much more shocking triumph in Bryan Cranston's surprise (but well-earned) win for Breaking Bad. "She's bald, too," marveled the actor, who shaved his head to play Walter White, a cancer-ravaged teacher-turned-meth dealer. Best known for outrageous comedy roles like the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston is a well-liked star who was considered an underdog in a strong field that included fellow AMC leading man Jon Hamm of Mad Men, House's Hugh Laurie (amazingly, still empty-handed), Dexter's brilliant Michael C. Hall, In Treatment's brooding Gabriel Byrne and Boston Legal's showboating James Spader.

Another relatively low-rated basic-cable freshman, FX's dark legal drama Damages, snared two major acting prizes with Glenn Close's expected lead-actress win and, in something of an upset, Zeljko Ivanek winning supporting actor as her doomed adversary over the higher-profile Ted Danson. (That was another tough category, and I found myself expecting to hear Lost's Michael Emerson's name called. Maybe next year.)

HBO's epic historical miniseries John Adams entered the record books as the most honored miniseries, with 13 total wins (including eight from the creative-arts awards a week earlier). No surprise there, although the lead-actress contest was a doozy, including Cranford's Judi Dench and my favorite, A Raisin in the Sun's Phylicia Rashad, reprising her Tony-winning performance. But Laura Linney, an Emmy darling with three wins on her resume, took it for her nuanced work as Abigail Adams. It was a John Adams sweep, and HBO also did well with its political movie Recount, which recounted the tense aftermath in Florida of the contested 2000 Bush-Gore presidential tally.

Politics reared its head several times during the Emmy telecast, not surprisingly given the nature of this election year- and the political content of shows such as Recount and John Adams. (Even Laura Linney, accepting her award, couldn't help but throw in a shout-out to "community organizers that help form our country," an obvious Obama reference.) As part of the night's salute to TV's past, The West Wing's Martin Sheen appeared on a replication of the Oval Office set to entreat viewers to vote. And in the most notable melding of TV and political history, a special Emmy was presented by Steve Martin to Tom Smothers, whose fabled Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was infamously canceled by CBS in the late 60s for its barbed political Vietnam-era commentary. Smothers used the occasion to speak out against war and in favor of freedom of expression, dedicating the award to "all those who feel compelled to speak out, to speak to power and won't shut up and refuse to be silenced."

Smothers also noted: "There's nothing more scary that watching ignorance in action." Somehow, I don't think he was talking about the night's Emmy hosts, but he might as well have been.

I didn't mind the producers turning the 60th annual Emmy show into a smorgasbord of nostalgia, with cast reunions, classic-set recreations, a theme-song medley, a collage of catchphrases and tons of clips. Most of it worked, and at times it was almost as if our TV past was flashing before our eyes. But even more often, it seemed like time was standing still- whenever the misbegotten hosts, the five nominees for the new reality-host category, crowded the stage.

The first acceptance speech, for Jeremy Piven's third Entourage win, dissed the rambling, clumsy opening. Some presenters griped that their bits had been cut because of Howie Mandel's incessant babbling. (No big loss maybe, but still.) Lousy time management resulted in major categories being rushed, while Jimmy Kimmel shamelessly milked the reality-host award presentation, not revealing the winner until "after the break," and even then not right away. As if anyone still cared.

No wonder the actual "talent" in the cavernous Nokia Theater seemed less than thrilled at these interlopers hijacking their show.

The most memorable moments came from seasoned comedians. Don Rickles brought the house down, bantering with Kathy Griffin (mocking "these funny lines they wrote for us") and later accepting an award for an autobiographical HBO special. British Office star Ricky Gervais was a hoot, mercilessly needling his U.S. counterpart Steve Carell in his seat, imploring him to "give me the Emmy" Gervais had won last year for Extras, which Carell had accepted in his place.

All of this was more funny and spontaneous than anything the hapless hosts did all the long night. The producers would have been better off just letting Oprah Winfrey regally set up the evening and then let TV's glorious history speak for itself.

Some final thoughts on the awards, a less egregious list of winners than usual:

I'm not much of a fan of shows winning over and over again, but somehow I can't get too worked up over The Daily Show and The Amazing Race continuing to dominate their respective fields. None of the competition comes close.

In drama, I'm thrilled for Mad Men, for writer/creator Matthew Weiner, for Bryan Cranston (perhaps the year's most inspired Emmy pick, though I'm still a fan of Jon Hamm's subtle multi-layered portrayal of Don Draper), for the directing award that went to House's devastating finale. For me, it was no contest where Glenn Close was concerned, and Zeljko Ivanek is a classic example of a great and often overlooked character, so no beef there. Biggest sigh of relief: the Boston Legal shut-out. Biggest gripe: Chandra Wilson, the heart and soul of Grey's Anatomy (and a SAG Award winner last year), losing to In Treatment's Dianne Wiest, a prestige choice. Though I can't really argue with that, because the acting was that show's strong suit, and her episodes as Gabriel Byrne's therapist were generally my favorite. But Bailey is one of my favorite characters anywhere on TV, and she's way overdue an Emmy.

In comedy, no real argument with the expected 30 Rock sweep or with Jean Smart's win for the underrated Samantha Who?, although with Amy Poehler leaving Saturday Night Live soon, I would have loved to see her rewarded for her versatility. She carries that poor show most weeks. And while his character is electrifying even in an off year for the show, Entourage's Jeremy Piven winning a third consecutive time seems excessive, especially when you consider the character development for Neil Patrick Harris's Barney on How I Met Your Mother last season. Big applause, though, to Barry Sonnenfeld's win for directing Pushing Daisies' dazzling pilot episode. If that show had made the best-comedy cut (it certainly deserved to over Entourage), I would have been rooting for it. But nothing was going to stop 30 Rock this year. Can anything top it this season?