February 12, 2009 12:00 AM

There are now 36 finalists for Idol‘s season 8, and it’s the most deliberately provocative lineup ever.

How so? Norman Gentle made the cut. Norman Gentle, as we know, is the comedic, campy alter ego of a talented singer named Nick Mitchell. Mitchell, actually, seemed willing last night to do anything — including dropping the Norman persona — if it meant moving on to the finals. “I’ll clean Simon‘s twenty cars,” he vowed. And yet, according to Paula‘s statement on behalf of the judges, they want him to continue in the competition as Norman.

Are they insane?

Possibly. Because the night was also the end of the talented double ride for Danny Gokey, who seemed a pretty safe bet from the start, and his friend Jamar Rogers, who was sent home (despite, if you ask me, having the better voice). That was unfortunate.

Meanwhile, Tatiana del Toro, who carries on like a ghost in an opera, will be back.

Idol was plainly determined last night to go over the top with sharp new twists. First, the contestants were all taken to a place called the Judges’ Mansion — and that’s certainly what it was, with paneled walls, ornate bric-a-brac and an enormous room in which the judges sat in large red chairs. The singers were sent in (through the garden, up the stairs, down the hallway — with cameras following every step of the way) and given the verdict as if they were college applicants meeting with a particularly elite alumni group. “One by one,” Ryan said of the losers, “they exit with their dreams crushed.”

A swag bag might have been nice.

Then there was this thing called the sing-off. The judges decided between iffy performers by having them stand and sing a few impromptu bars. While the one was singing, the other sat outside on a plush sofa, forced to listen. After the sing-off between Kristin MacNamara and Jenn Korbee, Simon asked the judges: “Do you want to keep the very attractive blond girl — or the other one?”

The attractive one, Jenn, left.

The best voices, at any rate, will keep on going: Jorge Nunez, Taylor Vaifanua, Jasmine Murray, Jackie Tohn, Adam Lambert (Simon: “My decision may surprise you. … It’s not good news. It’s great news”), Kai Kalama and Michael Sarver. — Tom Gliatto

Tell us: Who were you sad to see go? Who shocked you by making it to the next round? And who will you root for starting next week?

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