"Fleabag" star Phoebe Waller-Bridge sprang a major surprise at the Emmys Sunday, besting eight-time acting winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a major upset, on a night when "Game of Thrones" takes its final tilt at television glory.

"It's just really wonderful to know and reassuring that a dirty, pervy, angry, messed-up woman can make it to the Emmys," said Waller-Bridge, referring to her character.

The glitzy 71st Emmys began at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles with a comedy skit: a cartoon Homer Simpson was introduced as "host" -- and quickly crushed by a falling piano.

"Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston then appeared on stage to "rescue" the Emmys, delivering a tribute to television's so-called golden era.

"Television has never been bigger. Television has never mattered more. And television has never been this damn good," said Cranston.

Long-running HBO smash hits "Thrones" and Louis-Dreyfus' political satire "Veep" helped the premium cable network raise the game for the small screen -- with 74 Emmys between them, they are among the most decorated shows ever.

Both hope to add to their record hauls before they bow out at the glittering gala.

But Louis-Dreyfus missed out on a ninth acting statuette -- which would have been her seventh, and a clean sweep for every season, as foul-mouthed vice-president-turned-president Selina Meyer in "Veep."

"I'm sorry, I was told I would be up here alone," she joked as she later appeared on stage with her co-stars -- to a standing ovation -- to present an award.

Waller-Bridge's "Fleabag" was totally shunned by Emmy voters last year, failing to bag a single nomination, but hit its stride this time around.

The British actress and show creator has ruled out a third season, saying the irreverent BBC series about a self-absorbed young Londoner has come "to a natural end."

'Amazing' last season

While the divisive final season of "Game of Thrones" enraged many fans, it is the Television Academy's 24,000-plus voters who get to choose the winners in the drama categories later Sunday.

Ten members of the cast of "Thrones" appeared on stage to present Patricia Arquette an Emmy for her work on limited series "The Act," and received a standing ovation.

"I think all of us agree how amazing the entire last season was for us," said Sophie Turner, who played Sansa Stark.

There is an "overwhelming" chance the blood-soaked fantasy epic will land the top drama series statuette, according to Pete Hammond, awards editor at entertainment news outlet Deadline.

"There was controversy over how it ended ... but that just shows the impact of this piece of television," he told AFP.

"I don't see anything in the category that can compare ... it's appointment television."

"Thrones" already bagged 10 Emmys in lesser categories at last weekend's Creative Arts Emmys, including for the show's special effects and elaborate costumes.

It needs three more statuettes to top its own record for most Emmys in a single season.

Nine of its stars -- including Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) -- are in the running for acting prizes.

'Dagger in the heart'

Another big early winner Sunday was "The Marvelous Mrs Maisel" -- Amazon's story of a 1950s housewife-turned-stand up comic.

It won four acting prizes, with Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein adding to wins the show earned in the guest categories last weekend.

The show will later contend for the overall comedy gong with "Veep" -- which won in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but took a forced hiatus last year as Louis-Dreyfus battled breast cancer.

If "Veep" wins, HBO could achieve a rare clean sweep of all three major program categories.

"Chernobyl" -- HBO's drama about the 1986 nuclear catastrophe -- won the Emmy for best limited series.

It faced off against Netflix's "When They See Us," the searing true story of five New York teenagers wrongly accused of raping a Central Park jogger. One of its young stars, Jharrel Jerome, won the prize for best actor in a limited series.

Bill Hader won for best actor for HBO's hitman comedy "Barry."

"The dominance of HBO this year -- they really could be setting a precedent," said Hammond.

Television's A-listers hit the red carpet under sunny skies -- and in oppressive heat.

Transgender actress Laverne Cox, nominated this year for Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," carried a rainbow-colored clutch bag with the words "Oct 8. Title VII. Supreme Court."

The text is a reference to a potentially landmark Supreme Court hearing about employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin -- and whether that covers sexual orientation.

Copyright AFP. All rights reserved.

Emmys 2019
"Game of Thrones" needs three more statuettes to top its own record for most Emmys in a single season -- the cast of the show is seen here at the 2018 Emmys. Photo: AFP / Robyn Beck