He mostly met that standard, although it was at least in part because Donald Trump, by his constant hectoring and interruptions, seldom gave the former vice-president a chance to say something truly damaging to his own cause.
Twitter Trump - the unconventional, bombastic, insulting and rumour-mongering aspect of this president - was on full display throughout the hour-and-a-half event. Unfortunately for the president, many Americans, even his own supporters, find his social media persona one of his more unattractive attributes.
Trump needed this debate to shake up a race that is tilting against him - and which has been remarkably stable, through economic, health and social adversity.
Nothing about this free-for-all seems likely to alter the dynamics of this contest or change the minds of the one in 10 American voters who say they are still undecided (although perhaps they'll resolve never to watch another one of these).
LIVE updates, analysis and reaction Trump and Biden clash angrily on Covid and race Fact-checking the candidates' claims 'Will you shut up, man?' It was clear early on what kind of "debate" this would be. Donald Trump's objective was to rattle Joe Biden - and he planned to do it by constantly interrupting the former vice-president.
By CBS News's count, Trump cut in on Biden a total of 73 times.
That made for a series of chaotic exchanges, which included Trump questioning Biden's intelligence and Biden calling Trump a clown, shushing him and asking, indignantly, "Will you shut up, man?"
Time and time again, Trump would snipe at Biden, leaving the Democrat laughing and shaking his head.
As moderator Chris Wallace announced that the coronavirus was the next topic and that both candidates would have two-and-a-half uninterrupted minutes to answer, Biden quipped: "Good luck with that."
Moderating this prestigious primetime event may have been the worst job in America on Tuesday night.
Biden's deliberate camera move The coronavirus was always going to be difficult terrain for the president - and the topic came up early in the debate. Trump had to defend a pandemic response that has resulted in more than 200,000 American deaths. He did so by saying the steps he's taken prevented more deaths and suggesting Biden would have made things worse.
Biden's reply was to talk directly at the camera, asking the viewers if they could believe Trump (polls indicate a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the pandemic).
What did voters make of the debate? Brian Chellgren - an attorney and a conservative-leaning moderate: It was expected to be chaotic, and it was chaotic. Trump controlled the message with more interrupting, talking and controlling. Biden withstood it better than I thought he would. He got a little hot in the collar a few times. I didn't see any big eye-catching gaffes. I thought Biden had a good few periods where he aimed his message directly at the camera and to the public.
Keirsten Greggs - a talent recruiter and a progressive voter: At the end of the day, the loser was really us, the American people. A lot of people were expecting this to go the way that it did.
Joshua Roizman - a recent college graduate voting for Biden: Biden came out on top. He came out with a strong message and I can't tell you enough how much it mattered that he looked into the camera.
Ariel Hedlund - right-leaning independent voting for Trump: I think Trump's strongest point was when he talked about what he accomplished and what he will accomplish. On the other hand, Biden did really well when he spoke directly to the American people but he never gave us details and facts. I must say Vice-President Biden did much better than I expected.
Read the BBC voters' panel views in full here.
"A lot of people died and a lot more are going to die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker," said Biden.
In one telling exchange, Trump boasted about the size of his campaign rallies, held outside because that's what the "experts" - with emphasis on that word - suggest. He then said Biden held smaller rallies because he couldn't attract larger crowds.
"People want their places open," Trump said.
"People want to be safe," Biden countered.
That back-and-forth demonstrated a fundamental difference in the way the two candidates view the pandemic and whether the situation is getting better - or worse.
Race, white supremacists and the suburbs A debate format that lumped together race issues and urban violence led to feisty exchanges that made clear Biden was more comfortable talking about the former, while Trump wanted to discuss the latter.
Biden accused the president of fomenting racist divisions, while Trump swiped at Biden's support for a 1993 anti-crime bill that led to higher incarceration rates for blacks.
Biden would later go on the attack against Trump for saying Democratic-backed housing proposals meant to increase diversity were threatening to destroy the suburbs of American cities.