I really wanted to like this episode, if only because I like seeing people try new things from time to time, and a live episode always strikes me as intriguing.
In this regard, one reason for the "scrap-the-rules-let's-have-a-real-debate" thing (aside from whatever dramatic impact it is presumed to have) is to make the episode at least a little more visually interesting: it lets the characters interrupt each other, walk around the stage, etc. Can you imagine how boring this would have been if Smits and Alda had just stood at their podiums and given two-minute sound bites, per the original rules?
That said, I still found this pretty boring. My main complaint was that it did nothing to advance any story line in the show. You could re-watch the entire season, leaving this one out, and not skip a beat. I was waiting for one of the candidates to make The Major Gaffe That Changes The Course of the Campaign, or something like that...but no.
I have previously speculated that there is one team of writers for the campaign episodes and another for the White House episodes, and that the two do not seem to be in very close communication. Well, there must have been a third team for this episode. Last week there was a major campaign issue over abortion; right in the midst of this flap the candidates suddenly schedule a televised debate and the subject doesn't even come up??? Hello? Are any of the writers actually watching the show?
This is exactly how I felt. I was hoping something would happen that would actually have an impact on the storylines - but they didn't mention abortion, they didn't mention the CIA leak, etc. Watching paint dry. I stayed up to watch this after my Eagles got schlacked and then this disappointment.