Should I be worried I loved the big Emmy winners: Downton Abbey, Modern Family, Mildred Pierce and Mad Men. A win for good TV!

The 1950s drama Mad Men and a firmly 21st century comedy, Modern Family, won the top drama and comedy prizes at the Emmy Awards, with the British period piece Downton Abbey enjoying unexpected success.

After failing to score in the categories for which it was nominated, Mad Men took the Emmy for best drama in a final-act cliffhanger.

Modern Family made the biggest haul in the comedy category, as well as the top comedy award.

Downton Abbey took four awards in total, including best miniseries, best director, and best actress for Maggie Smith. The show, whose second series started on ITV in Britain on Sunday night, has been a critical success on the US network PBS.

Oscar-winning actor Kate Winslet won her first Emmy, for her lead role in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. "I didn't think we were going to win anything!" Winslet said.

On a night of surprises that brought a slew of newcomers to the Emmy podium, Mad Men won best drama series for a fourth straight year but the waiting got tense as the 1960s advertising drama lost out in all the acting, writing and directing races.

"I did not think that was going to happen," creator Matthew Weiner said, accepting the best drama series trophy. Mad Men has gone home with just two Emmys – including one from last week's creative arts ceremony – even though it came into the awards show with 19 nominations.

"We were shut out, but then we also won this (best drama) award so it balances out. To me this is the prize that says people love what we are doing," Weiner said backstage.

The 63rd Emmy awards was hosted by Glee actor Jane Lynch and featured Ricky Gervais, Charlie Sheen and Jon Stewart Link to this video

The story was different for Modern Family. Along with its best comedy win, the ABC mockumentary about three assorted couples and their children brought first-time wins for Julie Bowen and her screen husband Ty Burrell in the supporting acting slots, and Emmys for directing and writing.

Creator Steve Levitan called the wins "an embarrassment of riches" while actor Ed O'Neill said: "It was better than the first time. To repeat is difficult. I am relieved."

"Welcome back to the Modern Family awards!" Emmy ceremony host Jane Lynch joked early in the evening.

Elsewhere, a host of new faces took home Emmys in a night that defied most predictions.

The little-seen but critically admired football drama Friday Night Lights won for best writing and its star Kyle Chandler beat favourites Jon Hamm and Steve Buscemi for best dramatic actor.

Melissa McCarthy won lead comedy actress at her first shot for the CBS romantic comedy Mike & Molly, in which she plays an overweight teacher.

Emmy rookie Peter Dinklage won for his turn as the clever but rude Tyrion in HBO's popular medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones, while Margo Martindale was an emotional first-time winner for her supporting actress role in the FX drama Justified. The Emmy came to the veteran actress after more than 20 years in the business.

Julianna Margulies, star of The Good Wife on CBS, won the race for best dramatic actress. Jim Parsons was a rare repeat winner for comedy The Big Bang Theory in a category that most pundits had thought would finally go to departing The Office star Steve Carell.

"I am really flabbergasted. I am more shocked this year," Parsons said backstage.

Fox musical comedy Glee - one of the most talked about shows of the last two years - won just two Emmys, both in creative arts categories, while HBO's lavish Boardwalk Empire won seven of its eight total Emmys in last week's technical awards section. Its only win on Sunday night went to director Martin Scorsese.

HBO was the biggest network winner with 19 Emmys, followed by 14 for PBS, 11 for CBS, nine for Fox, eight for ABC and six for NBC.

Among the show's highlights was a smiling and apparently sincere Charlie Sheen, on the comeback trail after months of erratic behaviour that resulted in his firing from CBS hit Two and A Half Men. He was a last-minute addition as a presenter.

"From the bottom of my heart I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season," Sheen said of his former program that previously this year he had sharply criticised.

American Idol – the most-watched show on US television for the past seven years – was left empty-handed again in the reality competition show race, which was won by long-running Emmy favourite The Amazing Race.